'Living dangerously' in polluted Delhi

By Vikas Pandey
BBC Monitoring, Delhi

image copyrightAFP
image captionAn increasing number of children are suffering from lung diseases

Discussing air pollution in Delhi is serious business.

Any new report on pollution levels or thickening of the ever-present smog sparks lively debates on why the Indian capital cannot provide cleaner air to its residents.

Newspapers write editorials and reports, hashtags trend on Twitter and people debate the subject in bars, cafes and parks.

And a few days later, life goes back to normal until another "shocking" report talks about Delhi's "dangerous problem".

The New York Times' South Asia correspondent, Gardiner Harris, last week wrote a piece about his decision to leave India because of Delhi's air pollution.

Indian media outlets like The Times of India, which has been running a "Let Delhi Breathe" campaign, published excerpts from Mr Harris' article on its front page.

Headlines in other papers too sounded alarmed about the capital becoming unsafe for people.

And "death by breath" is as alarming as a headline can get.

But the discussion around the issue is not happening for the first time.

About a year ago, a World Health Organisation report said Delhi was the most-polluted city in the world. It was later rejected by the Indian government.

Then there were reports about the US embassy in the city buying air purifiers ahead of President Barack Obama's visit in January.

Such reports come and go. Non-governmental organisations keep fighting for their cause of "making Delhi clean and green".

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionMore than 1,000 cars are added to Delhi's roads every day

And there are occasional statements from ministers and officials, expressing concerns over Delhi's pollution problem.

But the situation does not seem to change.

Whenever I travel to a relatively cleaner city or India's Himalayan region, the first thing that strikes me is the feeling of breathing clean air.

I have heard similar stories from colleagues, friends and other Delhi residents.

'Leave Delhi'

One has just to step out in peak-hour traffic on any of Delhi's busy roads to realise how toxic the air has become. The number of children and adults suffering from lung-related diseases has also gone up.

The most dangerous particle - PM2.5 - in Delhi's air often reaches more than 20 times the permissible limit.

The PM2.5 participles are small enough to reach the lungs and, in some cases, the bloodstream as well. They cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems and can be carcinogenic.

So it wasn't surprising when a leading newspaper headline issued a dire warning: "Leave Delhi".

Then why do so many people continuing to make the capital their home?

The city's population is over 16 million and thousands come every day from neighbouring states and cities to work and live in Delhi.

But the trend is not new.

Delhi has been home to generations of poets, writers, artists, rulers and those seeking to make a living away from their villages and towns.

The capital's economic and infrastructure growth has also given way to an aspiring middle class.

Reports say that more than 1,000 cars are added to the city's roads every day. New apartments, shopping malls and restaurants are being built in suburban areas.

But this progress comes at a cost.

The dumping of construction waste in open areas contributes to dust pollution. Other reports have highlighted the depleting green cover of Delhi.

Despite such problems, successive governments have failed to come up with a "feasible plan" to curb air pollution.

The Delhi high court in April criticised the government for presenting a "vague and general" plan to clean the city's air.

But unlike Mr Harris, not many have the option of leaving the city.

However, experts say the people of Delhi have other options and initiatives like car pooling, planting trees and using public transport need to be taken seriously.

Above all, environmental activists need wider public support to put pressure on the government.

Until then, as one journalist said, "living in Delhi is like sitting on a ticking time bomb".

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