An Open Letter to New Delhi, the Most Polluted Place on the Planet

An Open Letter to New Delhi, the Most Polluted Place on the Planet

New Delhi, India

09/11/17

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

Air Pollution Advice

 

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.

Delhi Air Pollution Map

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!

Sincerely,

A Concerned World Citizen

Delhi Air Pollution View

The view from my hotel window

 

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6 Comments

  1. 13 November 2017 / 9:16 pm

    Oh my gosh, I had no idea it was this bad…

    • 14 November 2017 / 1:31 pm

      Yes, me neither, it was shocking. I am posting another post about this today if you’d like to check it out. It’s called Four Days Stuck Inside the Shangri La.

  2. 10 November 2017 / 9:42 pm

    Hi Lara…and WOW. My jaw dropped when I first saw your posted photo on Instagram so I came over to your blog to read this post. I’ve heard about the pollution problem from time to time on the news. However, now reading your post and seeing the photos it puts this problem into a much more dire reality for me as a reader and a world citizen. Being able to see this through your eyes and your experience is profound. I’m glad you wrote this and I hope it gets a lot of the much needed exposure and attention it deserves!! Hopefully your husband’s business travels will not have him return here as long as this health emergency persists! All my best…

    • 11 November 2017 / 12:48 pm

      Hi Mike, thanks for taking the time to come read this blog post and comment. I was compelled to write and say something, as I was surprised to discover how unaware I was of the problem – of course not just in Delhi, but around several big cities in our world – but also a lack of awareness by the people living in these polluted cities. The way so many people just carry on, whether that means showing up to work, or going outside for a jog, anything that involves inhaling that toxic air. Perhaps it’s part of human tenacity and how we have to live even under the worst of conditions, what real choice do most have? I honestly feel that there is power in awareness, especially now in 2017 and on towards our future. Awareness of big issues, from air pollution to plastics to gender equality, the list is long. But people’s voices are increasingly being heard around the world. And we’re demanding more from those who can be and should be held accountable. There is more that Delhi and cities like it can do. Just because it doesn’t impact me now in London doesn’t mean it’s a matter I will ignore. Thanks for your time 🙂

  3. Sid
    10 November 2017 / 9:07 am

    I second your views on this and am much concerned. Being living in Delhi from last 30 years, no one would pay any heed to such emergency when everything would get normal to our eyes when its lot worse. They have been lot of initiatives taken by the people like cycling but with such huge population all of it goes waste. All said, we are helpless and we cannot complain because its us who have got into this situation.

    • 11 November 2017 / 12:57 pm

      The situation was news to me. I didn’t know how bad it was until I found myself in the middle of it. I want to understand how did this happen, where else is the air pollution this bad, and what can we do about it? Whatever initiatives Delhi is taking, they are failing. I wanted to raise awareness about the problem because we’re not just talking about a little bit of pollution. It’s not just bad, it’s off the charts. It’s hazardous. It’s deathly. If anything less than 50 is safe, what does that mean for people breathing in pollution levels of 999?! That’s not an upper figure on pollution, but on how high we count and measure it. Where we see change, we see it starts with the people. So let’s keep talking and start working on those solutions! We have to reverse the trend.

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