New Delhi, India
To whom it may concern,
As a world traveler and travel blogger, I feel I should say something about this recent trip I’m on. I’m in New Delhi right now, where the air pollution levels are off the charts. My husband is here on business and I decided to come along so we could explore New Delhi and visit the Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world, together on the weekend. Instead, we’re flying home tonight, because not only will the Taj most likely be obscured from view by thick smog, the air isn’t safe to breathe.
According to India’s Air Quality Index, the respirable pollutants PM 2.5 and PM 10 measured 803 and 999 respectively today. To put that into context, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) measures levels below 50 as healthy and anything above 300 as hazardous (see chart below). If we compare to China, which also suffers from severe air pollution, the level of pollutants in New Delhi today is 10 times the reading in Beijing. Breathing the air here is said to be the equivalent of smoking 50 cigarettes a day. Fifty. Yet, people here continue to carry on. A half marathon planned for Sunday 19th is still on.
EPA Air Pollution Guidelines
These particles are poisonous, small enough to carry deadly toxins, chemicals, and carcinogens into the bloodstream, increasing the risk and prevalence of respiratory disease and lung cancer.
The Indian Medical Association has declared a public health emergency, but only issued protection for children, closing all schools this week and urging residents to stay indoors. But workers are still outside carrying on with no protection to their health or lives. My husband and his colleagues still had to go to work today. I can still hear the constant beeping and honking of car horns from the street below. A stage is being set up in the garden of our hotel for an outdoor show, party or perhaps a wedding that will take place tonight. Everyone is carrying on like nothing is wrong.
They are calling it a gas chamber. India has a responsibility to protect its citizens. It also has a responsibility to the international community. The level of air pollution here is, quite frankly, unacceptable.
A Bloomberg article today quoted a lung surgeon saying that the government should order the evacuation of Delhi as well as the closure of all schools and offices to protect the people. Air pollution is a major killer of people living here, responsible for millions of deaths each year. So how and why is that people appear so nonchalant over such a serious issue? Why are they not joining together in a wide-scale strike, staying home until the smog clears? My guess is that the answer lies somewhere between having no choice and a serious desensitization to this unfortunate, recurring problem.
It’s not as if the government is doing nothing, but clearly, it is not doing enough.
Contrary to popular belief, the traffic is not even the main cause, although still a significant contributor. Crop and garbage burning, biomass burning, industry emissions, road and construction dust are all major sources of air pollution. The recent Diwali celebrations have also been a factor.
While I’ve definitely come here at a very bad time – reports show the smog to be at it’s worst annually between October and November – it’s been an eye-opening experience to witness the most polluted place in the world firsthand.
We arrived on Monday morning and I haven’t left my hotel since. Watching as the buildings outside increasingly fade from view. I’m avoiding the gym and exercise, as the smog makes its way inside the hotel with each opening and closing of its doors. The lobby and several dining rooms now have the appearance of a popular cigar bar. Columns of smoke illuminated under the spotlights. My husband and his team, meanwhile, return from the office each day coughing with sore throats getting worse by the day.
It’s not just here in Delhi, the pollution is severe across most of North India. Even 200 km away in Agra, pollution levels are over 300 and responsible for the yellowing of the Taj Mahal.
So we have to leave. But the 20 million people that live here have no choice but to stay. That doesn’t sit well with me. What can I do? I can write this letter. I can help share and spread this information to my 7,000 followers who can share it with their friends and their friends. I honestly had no idea that it was this bad. News is like that, we can’t be aware of everything happening everywhere all the time. But even my Indian friends who are more frequent readers of Indian news than I have been shocked to hear about the situation here.
While political solutions are tricky business, it is undeniable that extreme and urgent measures are required. The time for incremental policy change is over. Radical, collective, urgent change is needed for the protection of the people and our planet. Enough is enough.
There is no use in pointing fingers, because everyone, whether guilty or not, has a role to play in tackling and reversing this problem.
Here’s an idea, close your schools and offices. Implement a temporary traffic and crop burning ban. Halt industry production. Evacuate anyone with respiratory illness or acute asthma. Implement stringent emissions controls with 1 year to comply or they will be shut down. Create an emergency fund to help finance implementation of the most urgent policies. Collaborate with China and other nations to share the most effective methods and lessons for tackling air pollution. These are just a few ideas, some better than others, I’m sure. But the bottom line, India, is that you could be doing more!
A Concerned World Citizen