Having surpassed China as the country with the world’s worst air pollution on record in 2015, India currently faces momentous challenges in tackling its severe air pollution problems. India’s sustained and rapid development over the past decade has seen it become the world’s fastest growing economy during 2016, yet the environmental fallout from this rapid industrialisation is making itself urgently evident.
New Delhi’s intensifying smog and air pollution have been widely reported, with AQI readings regularly exceeding 300 for PM2.5, over 12 times the recommended limit given by the World Health Organization and above the ‘hazardous’ threshold of US AQI standards. This has resulted in half the capital’s 4.4 million schoolchildren being estimated to have incurred permanent lung damage, whilst the dry “Delhi cough” has become pervasive across the city’s huge population.
Whilst New Delhi’s serious condition is well-publicised, much of Northern India is in a similar or worse condition in terms of air quality. India’s capital ranked 11th worst for annual mean PM2.5 pollution in the WHO’s 2016 database, with northern cities Gwalior, Allahabad and Patna as well as more central Raipur ranking higher in the top 10.
India’s dependence on coal power is a significant contributor to pollution, with many coal plants based in the north of the country. Whilst the government has pledged to invest heavily in solar energy, coal power from the country’s plentiful reserves is still likely to supply over 60% of the country’s energy needs until 2030. Other contributing factors include high numbers of inefficient motor vehicles on roads, burning of agricultural waste, residential fuel burning, construction and industry.
As public unrest over air quality escalates, the government is taking steps to address the problem. 2016 saw a driving days restriction introduced in the capital, whereby residents may only drive cars with an odd or even licence plate number on alternate days. A road tax and ban on registration for old, inefficient vehicles has also been implemented. A National Air Quality Index (NAQI) was introduced in 2015 in ten cities, sharing air quality data with the public online and via outdoor screens. However, this initiative has so far implemented more monitoring stations in New Delhi than anywhere else, and provides little advice on how to respond to air quality data: when and how citizens should protect themselves.
As the issue of air pollution becomes increasingly urgent in India, we should expect to see more drastic steps taken in the country to address this public health and environmental threat.