A Toxic Issue: Air Pollution in New Delhi

By Sequeira, Jessica | Harvard International Review, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

A Toxic Issue: Air Pollution in New Delhi


Sequeira, Jessica, Harvard International Review


The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing focused environmental attention on pollution in China. But escaping the spotlight was Asia's other tiger, India, where high pollution levels are at least indirectly responsible for tens of thousands of deaths a year. Its capital city is the most egregious offender--according to a 2007 report by the Central Pollution Control Board, Delhi has the highest pollution levels of any major city in the country. Moreover, the Centre for Science and Environment reports that Delhi's air quality has deteriorated sharply over the past two years.

The statistics are alarming. Two of every five residents of New Delhi suffer from a respiratory disease, and hospitalization rates are on the rise for pollution-induced conditions like asthma, lung disease, chronic bronchitis, and heart damage. Researchers have also found evidence that long-term exposure to the microscopic dust particles resulting from pollution can lead to weakened immune systems and lung cancer. Because 70 percent of Delhi's air pollution comes from vehicles, those who work outdoors, including blue-collar workers and taxi drivers, are the most affected group.

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The exponential growth of India's economy over the last few decades is responsible for much of the problem. In the 1990s, the loosening of government regulations on foreign trade led to an influx of foreign capital. Many businesses in Silicon Valley and other tech loci began relocating their information technology services and call centers to India. This opportunity for increased prosperity has in essence created a new middle class with Westernized tastes and a budget to match. This hugely ballooning demographic is responsible for 39 percent of Indian consumption now; by 2025, this number will rise to 70 percent.

The direct consequence is the presence of more cars on the roads than ever before. From 1997 to 2006, the number of registered vehicles in New Delhi rose from 1.5 million to 4.5 million, and it continues to increase by an average of 963 private vehicles every day. Tata Motors also plans to begin selling its new "People's Car" in late 2008 at the rock-bottom price of US$3,000. Market analysts predict that the car could expand the Indian car market by as much as 65 percent, with a corresponding increase in emissions. While the increased demand for cars is a tangible indicator of India's continued economic growth, it will challenge India's already gridlocked infrastructure and further increase levels of pollution and congestion.

The government has attempted to tackle the problem of air pollution in the past. A law ordering that all public transportation vehicles use compressed natural gas by 2001 resulted in a noticeable decrease in air pollution.

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