Residents of the Indian capital, who thought they had conquered air pollution a decade ago, are once again choking on exhaust fumes and dust and New Delhi has regained its status as one of the world’s dirtiest cities, according to environmental campaigners and official air quality data.
Scientists have sounded the alarm after three “extreme” air pollution episodes last year showed that Delhi could no longer boast that its air was consistently cleaner than Beijing’s.
Poor air quality is a problem for urbanites across Asia, whether they live in wealthy cities such as Hong Kong or poorer ones such as Manila. A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development last year said air pollution was set to become the biggest environmental cause of early death if no action is taken.
“By 2050, the number of premature deaths from exposure to particulate matter is projected to more than double to reach 3.6m a year globally, with most deaths occurring in China and India,” it said.
Residents of Delhi had been enjoying a few years of respite. Pollutants fell sharply after the state of Delhi switched buses and taxis from diesel to compressed natural gas CNG, a cleaner fuel; built metro lines to serve a conurbation of 22m people; and moved factories from the city centre.
Today, however, progress is being reversed, with 1,400 cars a day being added to the 6.5m already on the streets. Anumita Roychowdhury, an executive director at the Centre for Science and Environment CSE, a non-government group, says vehicles are responsible for over 70 per cent of the “cocktail of deadly pollutants” people breathe.“
Since 2006, the air pollution data out there is very clear,” she says. “It’s showing that the pollution levels are rising now, steadily, consistently, and they have gone up much beyond pre-CNG days. That’s the most scary part.”