When an acrid blanket of gray smog settled over India’s capital last month, environmentalists warned of health hazards, India’s Supreme Court promised action and state officials struggled to understand why the air had suddenly gone so bad.
The heavy smog has dissipated for the moment, but it has left behind a troubling reality for one of India’s most important city: Despite measures to improve air quality, pollution is steadily worsening here, without any simple solutions in sight.
“This is like a ding-dong battle,” said Sheila Dikshit, the chief minister of Delhi, moving her fingers like the flippers of a pinball machine. “We catch up with something; the pressures catch up more than that.”
Delhi, a growing metropolis of nearly 20 million people, has struggled to reconcile its rapid economic growth with environmental safeguards. Over a decade ago, the city introduced a host of policies that raised emission standards, closed polluting industries and expanded green spaces. It made a costly investment to convert the city’s buses and auto rickshaws to compressed natural gas. For a time, air quality visibly improved.
But those gains have been overwhelmed in recent years. “We have already plucked the low-hanging fruits, so to speak,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, the executive director of the Center for Science and Environment. “Now it’s time for aggressive, second-generation reforms.”
Roychowdhury and other environmentalists say the government must now concentrate on slowing the rising number of vehicles on New Delhi’s roads. Each day, some 1,400 new vehicles hit the roads of the city, already home to over 7 million registered vehicles, a 65-percent jump from 2003. As a result, fine-particle pollution has risen by 47 percent in the last decade. Nitrogen dioxide levels have increased by 57 percent.