How bad is Delhi’s air pollution problem?

Delhi, home to India’s capital, has a history of air pollution issues.

How bad is Delhi’s air pollution problem?
A man exercises on a playground of the school after primary classes were ordered shut by the Delhi government for Friday and Saturday as the air pollution increased and the air quality index (AQI) plummeted, on a smoggy morning in New Delhi, India, November 3, 2023. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

The backstory: Delhi, home to India’s capital, has a history of air pollution issues. For years, New Delhi has been considered one of the world's most polluted cities. During past times of particularly bad air pollution, airlines have stopped flying into its airports because of how difficult it was to see. This kind of air pollution is a major health problem. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the combined effects of outside air pollution and household air pollution are linked to 6.7 million premature deaths every year.

More recently: There are a few different reasons for this problem. In nearby Punjab and Haryana, some farmers burn their rice fields after harvesting, which is a cheap and efficient way of clearing the land. Some estimates put crop burning at contributing to 25% of Delhi’s air pollution. This year, there was a rise in farmers burning their fields during planting season, and Punjab has seen a 740% increase in farm fires, with over a thousand in a single day at one point. Car emissions, construction and trash burning at waste plants are also responsible. 

When it comes to regulating these causes, there’s been a lot of political chaos. The opposition Aam Aadmi Party runs both Delhi and Punjab, but leaders haven’t gotten a hold of this problem. Punjab authorities haven’t cracked down on crop burning, possibly fearing turning off a huge group of voters. In New Delhi, officials also haven’t successfully addressed urban pollution sources, especially when it comes to cars. The national government isn’t doing a better job, really, with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and Aam Aadmi often unable to work together to really establish change. 

The development: Over the past week, air quality in Delhi has nosedived. By last Friday, schools were shut down, and non-essential construction was also put on hold in the Delhi metro area. The city’s air quality index hit 500, which is the highest the index actually goes. This is also 100 times the human health limit put in place by the WHO. This is the worst quality of any city in the world at the moment, with New Delhi topping a real-time list of the world’s most polluted cities by Swiss group IQAir. Residents of New Delhi have mentioned feeling eye irritation and itchy throats. The air itself is hard to see through, blanketing everything in grey. This air quality drop is attributed to the crop burning but also specific wind patterns and a temperature drop that trapped pollutants.

Key comments:

“There is vehicular fuel combustion, our waste-burning combustion, stubble-burning combustion, and many people in Delhi use biomass for cooking,” said Jai Dhar Gupta, an environmental activist and consultant on air pollution. “You have to arrest those sources of emission.”

“In my last 24 hours duty, I saw babies coughing, children coming with distress and rapid breathing,” Aheed Khan, a Delhi-based doctor, posted on X.

“This pollution level is here to stay for the next two to three weeks, aggravated by incidents of stubble burning, slow wind speed and cooling temperatures,” said Ashwani Kumar, chairman of the Delhi Pollution Control Committee.