Why is Delhi the Most Polluted City in the World?

Did you know that breathing the polluted Delhi air, on dense days, is equal to smoking 50 cigarettes a day?

2 min read

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(This story was first published on 4 June 2019. It is being re-posted from The Quint’s archives due to worsening air quality in Delhi-NCR.)

Video Editor: Prashant Chauhan

Cameraperson: Abhishek Ranjan

I live in the world’s most polluted city. I wish I could show you where I live, but only if this smog clears... Yup, I am talking about Delhi.

The Air Quality Index (AQI) is an index that tells you how clean or polluted the air is. A reading of 100 or below is considered normal. But in Delhi, on normal days we hit 300.

Now, that’s dangerous.

And on bad days, like in the winters or when our friendly farmers burn the crop stubble, this number shoots up between AQI 700 to 1000.

I don’t smoke, but I think I might as well start. Because breathing this polluted air is equal to smoking 50 cigarettes! This pollution is killing 33 people in Delhi every single day.

Well, that’s 12,000 dead people a year from air pollution – that's six times the number of deaths from road accidents every year.

Back in the 70s, 80s or even 2000s, things were not this bad for Delhi. This choking was recorded only over the last 10 years.


The Three Seasons of Dip in Air Quality

The first dip in air quality occurs between September to November, due to crop burning. The second dip takes place in December to January, when the cold winter air prevents pollutants from dispersing.

To put it simply, warm smoke traps the cold winter air, acting like a lid and stopping smog from rising and drifting away.

The third dip occurs during the summer months – April to June. So, Delhi is polluted almost throughout the year.

In 2018, Delhi recorded less than 120 days of clean, breathable air. To understand this, we must actually look beyond the city.


When a farmer in Punjab or in Haryana decides to burn crops – because it’s a cheap way to get rid of the stubble – the smoke just sort of drifts over here.

Delhi — or the entire northern plains for that matter — is like a basin, which fills with the smoke from crop-burning.

As the air gets dirty and thick with pollutants, it stagnates, refusing to leave the city.

But let's not put all the blame on geography and farmers. Dilli wallahs are also to be blamed for this.

  • Rapid vehicular traffic growth
  • Open construction
  • Overpopulation
  • Felling of trees

So, What Are the Solutions?

Buying fancy masks with Spiderman logos? House plants? Air purifiers? Or simply not stepping out of our homes?

NO! These are simply stop-gap measures.

The Questions We Should Actually be Asking Are:

  • How can we help the kids growing up with permanently compromised lungs – the next generation of Indians?
  • What exactly is the National Green Tribunal supposed to do, apart from collecting fines?
  • Why is the government not treating air pollution like a national emergency?
  • What is the purpose of pollution control laws when they are not implemented?
  • When will the government stop sponsoring tree-cutting?
  • How long can Delhiites afford to live in this gas chamber before citizens and the government take it seriously?

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