Delhi & Beijing – Smothered by Smog, Separated by Action
Even by Delhi’s toxic standards, the thick plumes of grey shrouding the city, obscuring anything beyond a couple of meters is appalling.
On the afternoon of 9 November, the National Capital was smothered in smog so thick that it could be sliced with a knife. The levels of the cancer-causing particulate matter (PM 2.5), which are absorbed deep into the lungs, rose to above 999 – basically going off the charts. According to the World Health Organization, levels over 300 are ‘hazardous’.
On the afternoon of 9 November, Beijing, which is also breathing uneasy in the winter smog, noted a PM 2.5 reading of ‘unhealthy’ 151, 10 times better than the National Capital.
New Delhi and Beijing share the dubious distinction of being the world’s most polluted megapolises but their response to the crisis is what sets them apart.
Annual ‘Air’pocalypse – A Tragedy Delhi Can No Longer Wiggle Out Of
It is a public health emergency, catastrophe of the highest order. This level of pollution can cause respiratory attacks to flare up, heart patients should particularly watch out – if there are some blockages in the heart already then there are increased chances of a heart attack.Dr Nilesh Gautam, Interventional Cardiologist, Asian Heart Institute
According to the World Health Organization, India has maximum deaths from asthma in the world and our lungs are the weakest even among non-smokers in a survey of 17 countries. The Yamuna is bubbling with toxic fumes, it stinks of chemical sewage and human feces.
The air pollution is directly responsible for 3000 premature deaths in Delhi every year. That’s 8 deaths per day according to the Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA). Perhaps the most appalling is how it affects children – 40 percent of school going children in Delhi have compromised lung capacity.
And yet, year after year politicians bicker as Delhi chokes.
The Union Health Ministry sprung into belated action by issuing a mundane advisory:
The state government has blamed neighbouring Punjab and Haryana for stubble burning, shut down schools temporarily and the entry of trucks into the city while it debates on further actions.
China, on the other hand, stopped hiding behind the euphemism of ‘heavy fog’, publicly acknowledging pollution as an environmental and health catastrophe after the tipping point of 2008 Olympic Games.
China’s capital is not in the clear yet, but for the first time since 2008, that’s when their government started monitoring air pollution data, Greenpeace has recorded a 15 percent annual fall in the concentration of the most deadly air pollutant, PM 2.5.
Beijing's Grey Smog Has a Blue Lining
Beijing, like New Delhi, has a smog problem compounded by vehicles, construction, industries, aggravated by geography and sickened by weather.
China stopped living in denial and hiding behind the deadly air blanket over its cities.
It got a mechanism in place – a 7.5 trillion rupees action plan to combat pollution, a four-point alert system for toxic haze, red alerts for days when pollution breaches the hazardous category of 300 for three consecutive days.
In this period, schools, factories, construction sites, vehicles, highways, a few thermal plants come to a grinding halt till the smog lifts.
Beijing cut down on coal consumption responsible for 60 percent of PM 2.5 in the air, made coal factories energy efficient, devised a plan to be coal-free by 2020, and are rolling out the world’s largest investment in wind and solar power. All this is kept in check with a robust network of 1500 air quality monitoring stations built at stunning (Chinese) speed in more than 900 cities which collect real-time pollution data.
The cost of disobedience in China is severe. If a factory flouts emission rules for ten days, the penalty is ten times higher and citizens are empowered enough to check emissions of any industrial plant and report violators via social media.
When Will Blue Skies and Clean Air Make It To the Election Manifestos?
Perhaps when citizens start ringing the alarm bells and not just rant on twitter with ‘smog selfies’, growing public anger can indeed push our government to combat pollution on priority.
There is a long way to go, but NASA satellite images show that between the year 2000 and 2015, particulate matter spiked up in Delhi by 13% while it fell in China by 17%. The average annual pm 2.5 concentration in Delhi tends to linger around 150ug/m compared to Beijing mean of 60 ug/m.
In authoritarian China, leaders in Beijing judge those in the provinces by their progress on economic, health and environmental fronts. Tonny Xie, the Director of Secretariat at the Clean Air Alliance of China, quoted in a South China Morning Post article, says that under the newer system of governance, dust-billowing toxic black haze can shape political careers.
There are many steps which policy makers can take to get Delhi’s blue skies back, being particular about particulates on war-footing is just one of them.
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