Indo-US love is in the air and the air is highly toxic. Quite literally. American security agencies are obsessing with President Obama's security cover while he enjoys the honour of being the chief guest at the 65th Indian Republic day parade, but frankly speaking the most eminent danger he faces at the alfresco extravaganza is that of being poisoned by merely breathing Delhi air. Yes, Delhi air is that hazardous and I'm not exaggerating, the official numbers by both Indian and American pollution monitoring stations are saying so. All officials might be tight-lipped, mostly to avoid any major embarrassment, but let me give you a first-hand account of the ground reality.
Delhi is privileged to have multiple pollution monitoring stations but only four are constantly (more or less) working and putting out data in public on real time basis. Three of them are run and maintained by Delhi Pollution Control Committee while the fourth one is that of the US Embassy. An average of these four can be assumed to represent overall pollution level for most of central and south Delhi where Obama will spend most of his Delhi time. Based on these, the average PM2.5 (24 hourly) concentration in ambient air for last 31 days works out to be 252 microgram per cubic meter (µg/m3). A concentration of 250 µg/m3 or more of PM2.5 is categorised as "hazardous" by the US and "severe" by India under their respective air quality index (AQI). (See graph: Slow murder of Delhi: PM2.5 pollution 19 December-20 January)
"[It] may cause respiratory effects even on healthy people and serious health impacts on people with lung/heart diseases. The health impacts may be experienced even during light physical activity" is how the Indian AQI describes associated health impact of severe conditions. The cautionary statement for hazardous conditions under the US AQI reads, "Everyone should avoid all physical activity outdoors; people with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should remain indoors and keep activity levels low."
Unaware children will be parading in such conditions while Obama will at least be seated!
Personal exposure risk!
I was one of the subjects in a personal air pollution exposure study conducted in November-December last year by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a New Delhi based non-profit. The study found that personal exposure of individuals can be twice as high as what the official ambient air pollution monitors report for ambient air. In short one breathes in toxins twice the amount recorded by the stations as we tend to be in closer proximity to pollution sources. Being aware of the toxicity of each breath I took during the study stunned me, no air was safe—at home, at my favourite coffee shop or city forests. So stunned was the Chief Justice of the Indian Supreme Court at this revelation that he asked the government of India to explain this state of slow poisoning. Before I apprise you about the Indian government's response, let me indulge you with an anecdote.
Those participating in the Delhi half marathon last November, including US embassy staff, would have inhaled almost 18 times the allowable daily dose of PM2.5 in three hours (Photo by Arnab pratim Dutta)
The annual Delhi half marathon was held on November 23, 2014 thousands took to the road to celebrate health and fitness. The Rajpath, the central avenue in New Delhi through which the January 26 parade passes, was also the part of the marathon route. I was there with my personal pollution monitor which fluctuated between 800-1,200 µg/m3 of PM2.5 concentration the whole time as the unaware were pushing their lungs into over-drive to prove their fitness. If I crudely translate the AQI into amount of PM2.5 a person should inhale in a day, then owing to running-induced heavy breathing the runners, who included many children, would have inhaled almost 18 times the allowable daily dose in those three hours.
If the weather and pollution conditions turn similar to what it was on when, Obama, by just sitting alongside Rajpath and enjoying the parade, would be inhaling three times the amount of toxic PM2.5 than what is considered as safe for a full day exposure.
Does anyone really care?
Many studies in Delhi, including those from All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, Vallabhbhai Patel Chest Institute, St Stephens Hospital and others, offer disturbing evidence that people are developing cancer due to extreme exposure to air pollution. As per the Global Burden of Disease report released in 2013, air pollution is the fifth largest killer in India. WHO has classified air pollution as a class 1 carcinogen. The World Allergy Organization Journal also published (in 2013), a report on the high respiratory disorder symptoms in students residing in Chandni Chowk (66 per cent) in north Delhi, Mayapuri (59 per cent) in west Delhi and Sarojini Nagar (46 per cent) in south Delhi.
In the affidavit filed in Supreme Court, the government of India just stopped short for attributing the dirt in the Delhi air as act of god, and dismissed suggested pollution control measures as unwarranted. Though after sharp criticism from CSE, the ministry has clarified its stand and acknowledged the role of increasing private motor vehicles in polluting the air but it refused to smell the air.
This denial is one stand which has not changed with the change in the government. Meenakshi Lekhi, the member of Parliament from New Delhi constituency and spokesperson of the ruling party, told the Urban Age Conference that Delhi smog is a natural phenomena, happening due to Delhi's geography and there are places with worse air than Delhi, so media should not malign the capital city's name. This is exactly what Sheila Dikshit, former chief minister of Delhi, used to chime every time city air turned into toxic.
How does the logic that one's cancer is not as severe and caused due to one's genetics serve as justification for denying any cure?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his speech at a rally for the upcoming Delhi election on February 7, made a passing remark about cleaning up the Delhi air, if Delhi elects his party to govern the city-state. I will give him the credit for at least acknowledging the tragedy and seeing it as something that the government can fix. I wish he had taken the action right away and not used it as a carrot to allure Delhi into to electing his party to power.
US embassy failure
Proactive action via live air quality tweeting by the US embassy in Beijing in order to alert its citizens on related health complications, can be partly credited for drastic measures which Beijing authorities now take to tackle bad air days. They have set up pollution monitoring stations in India, too, as mentioned earlier in the blog, but their actions have been quite weird. They don't send out tweets alerting people as they do in Beijing. They did close down their school on October 29, last year, when their monitor calculated the PM2.5 at 198 µg/m3 at 8 am and 210 µg/m3 at 6 pm, but no alerts were issued to skip Christmas mass when the same station reported levels above 250 µg/m3 continuously for 102 hours between December 21-25. No alert was issued for the half marathon either, in which even the embassy staff participated. Did health concern for citizens also go for vacation? (See graph: Pollution hits the roof while US Embassy Vacations)
Is it even an issue in Delhi?
Everyone knows the air is polluted in Delhi, yet you would be lucky to spot a person sporting a dust mask as they brave the outdoors. Issue is we don't relate our worsening health with the air we breathe. We regularly mistake our cough for winter-induced common cold. I did that; two and a half years back when I made Delhi my home I had no respiratory problems. Today I will not be able to go through my day without taking something to decongest my nasal passage. I'm a borderline asthmatic now and my doctor tells me my condition will vary from season to season and from city to city and I'll have to make a conscious choice where and how to live. My monthly expenditures shot-up by more than 10 per cent owing to increased meditation. It not only hurts our productivity but our pockets too. Government will say there is no study to prove the correlation, but it won't even commission a study to prove otherwise.
Delhi is where the jobs are and if Delhi with all its power and money can't clean its air what can one expect out of smaller cities which don't even have a pollution monitor to tell them if they are being poisoned.
Mr President, gift a mask to your host, too
Cars are choking the air and it's pretty well known now to debate over. Beijing regularly hits media headlines now for preventive actions like shutting down highways in lead up to major international events so as to avoid embarrassment. Indian officials usually respond by switching off the pollution monitoring station whenever the levels start to break records or around important event. The station closest to Rajpath was switched off in the run up to and during last year's Republic Day parade. I guess authorities completely endorse the ostrich logic of burying one's head in the sand when faced with adversity.
As for now, the authorities might surely be praying for rains to cover up their failure. But the fact is even the rains on January 2-3 could not wash clean the particulate pollution to below safe levels. Levels are again hovering around 250 µg/m3 nowadays. Delhi needs someone to slap it awake and I request President Obama to do the honours. Please wear a dust mask at the parade, I know you can survive a day of Delhi air but that symbolic gesture might make life a little healthier and longer for millions who have no option but to die a little with each breath they take.