Why does it take the visit of the US President Barack Obama to highlight that India has a serious air pollution problem?
Some may have missed a small footnote in the excitement over the US President’s visit. It was initially suggested Obama, chief guest at India’s Republic Day Parade, should remain indoors as the air quality levels is hazardous to his health?! Naturally you can’t be chief guest at an outdoor parade without being… well.. outdoors! But at last there followed a series of articles in the press about just how bad pollution levels are in India.
On a normal day though, pollution is not recognised as an issue. Whereas in Shanghai, my friend daily checks the pollution count. If it is too high, the doors to her lovely balcony and windows are firmly kept shut.
When I first moved to India from 1995-96, I lived in Delhi at a time when the air pollution was so bad I did not see one single puffy white cloud or star for 1.5 years! It was then one of the top most polluted cities in the world.
In 2001, Delhi cleaned up its act by forcing polluting industries to shut shop in the city and move elsewhere (ostensibly with better controls), petrol was switched to CNG for all buses, rickshaws and even many private vehicles converted under incentive schemes and the lure of cheap CNG.
I returned to Delhi to look up and gasp! Blue skies and clouds? Stars at night?!
Mumbai was never as bad as Delhi thanks to the sea breeze. However with that comes complacency. Unlike Delhi that at least made an effort to improve, Mumbai has instead steadily, slowly, quietly deteriorated without protest or fuss.
Unfortunately, Delhi has also returned to dangerous levels – flip-flopping between ‘Unhealthy‘ and ‘Very unhealthy ‘ and occasionally ‘hazardous’ depending on the time of year and where you are. Within ten years all the progress made in 2001 was lost as diesel vehicles clogged the city’s air.
And yet is there a hue and cry about it?
Only recently – to highlight that the places Obama plans to visit are 3 times India’s safety standards and 9 times the WHO’s limits. According to Greenpeace, Delhi is 2.5 times worse than Beijing – a city known in China for unacceptably high pollution levels.
While I simply need to get out from time to time just to give my lungs a break, most folks do not have a choice.
Or they make the difficult decision to move. Exactly what a friend did recently as his youngest son suffers from severe asthma and could not run about and play, instead needed heavy medications just to get through a regular day in Bombay. In his new home? No medication and no restrictions!
And just how bad is this unspoken issue?
By one measure (PM2:5 levels), India is ‘winning’ in the contest for most polluted cities in the world!
Personally this is one ‘top prize’ I hope India starts to lose soon! My lungs really would prefer to stop involuntarily smoking 2 – 3 packs of cigarettes a day without drawing one single puff!
In the meantime, back in my home town of Winnipeg? The level is ‘Good‘ at only 18… So don’t be surprised if I spend a lot of time on my next trip to Canada just breathing!
And just what is the difference between good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy, very unhealthy and hazardous?
What about your city? Why not look it up here? Are you breathing free with a sigh of relief or hacking your lungs out in misery?
For more information, check out the articles below:
- Obama about to get a whiff of India’s pollution
- Obama visit: pollution levels hazardous in Delhi
- The air we breath in Mumbai
- Thirteen of the 20 most polluted cities are in India
- Air Quality Index – A guide
- 7 minute film about China’s insane air pollution