Delhi, my grandmother cannot breathe!

Breathing Delhi air is equivalent to smoking 50 cigarettes a day.

Delhi is yet again covered in thick smog that is choking its residents, including many members of my extended family. Every year, the air quality worsens in the winter months as farmers in neighboring states clear their fields by burning plant debris left over from the harvest. Many of the city’s laborers and poor residents keep warm by burning leaves and trash. The Diwali festival, which is traditionally celebrated by setting off firecrackers, also contributes to the foul-smelling haze. Dust from construction sites and car pollution exacerbate the problem, making Delhi air one of the most dangerous in the world.[1]

After Diwali this year, doctors claim that breathing Delhi air is akin to smoking 50 cigarettes a day. Last week, the air pollution levels were estimated to be 24 times higher than normal levels. Parts of Delhi reported 999 on the Air Quality Index (AQI), when the World Health Organization (WHO) considers anything above 25 unsafe.[2] The microscopic particles are considered particularly harmful because they are small enough to lodge deep into the lungs and pass into other organs, causing serious health risks. The smog has blanketed much of the city in recent days, severely reducing visibility, restricting traffic, delaying flights and restricting all but the most necessary outdoor activity. The problems are creating hassles that must be dealt by the citizens and the government.[3]

The severity of the issue has led the Delhi government to temporarily ban construction activity and use of diesel power generators, totally ban trucks from entering the city, as well as close all schools to avoid exposing children to toxic air. However, such emergency measures are not enough. Some government officials are ignorant and blame the unusually high pollution due to lack of wind and change in humidity. As a result, they are not willing to take long-term measures to curb the problem.

The government needs to do more work to enact systematic change. Unlike in other smoggy cities such as Beijing, air pollution has yet to become a politically sensitive issue in Delhi. Instead, residents (who can afford it) are relying on short-term solutions such as air purifiers. Unfortunately, many people cannot afford the purifiers and are suffering. And as a consequent, the purifier businesses are reaping profits from a hazardous environmental situation.

The government needs to take three major steps: (1) Temporarily ban all private cars and only allow sustainable modes of transportation such as bicycling, walking, as well as ride sharing services such as Uber. They also need to provide safe and convenient public transformation such as buses, trams, trains, etc. (2) Heavily regulate all construction sites, provide more sustainable fuel sources for the poorer population, and educate farmers on consequences of harvest burning. (3) Make the city greener by leading tree planting initiatives and provide tax credits to organizations and individuals that lead carbon neutral programs. This issue needs to be top of mind for everyone, and should not be forgotten the first time it rains and the air cleans up temporarily.

Realize that implementing such changes is very challenging, especially when it comes to changing consumer behavior. For example, people will be hesitant to give up the luxury of sitting in their own driver-driven cars to use public transformation/shared services. The challenge faced by government to quickly supply high quality public transport for everyone is also very expensive. The experiment run by the government of alternating odd or even license plate cars on the road at any given time (depending on the month) was a good test to see impact on traffic and pollution. The government should continue to do such experiments in the short-term to slowly change behavior as it helps prove out the value in the long run. This is where our role as future business leaders comes into play.

Some of the key questions we must ask ourselves: What business model disruptions can we enable to sustainably support governments in solving the environmental issues while meeting consumer needs of convenience and low-cost? How can we help developing economies grow sustainably? Are there examples of cities that have done this in a short period of time? Or do we always need to be patient as such changes inevitably take a long time?

Word count = 737

[1] Wall Street Journal, New Delhi’s Thick, Toxic Smog Forces School Closures (2016).

[2] India Today, Breathing Delhi air akin to smoking 50 cigarettes a day, doctors say (2017).

[3] CNN, Delhi pollution crisis prompts city-wide emergency measures (2017).


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7 thoughts on “Delhi, my grandmother cannot breathe!

  1. This article sheds light on a complex issue that Delhi is facing and I think that, in order to bring effective solutions in the long term, we first have to identify the relative impact of each cause. As I understand, the main sources of the deadliest (=smallest) particles are: the burning of residual biomass from harvest (26%), vehicular exhausts (28%) and power generation (27%) adding up to 81% of total air pollutants particles produced [1].
    If we want to address this problem, we should thus bring solutions that would focus on:
    1) Reducing/ eliminating the burning of biomass by installing biogas plants and creating a market for farmers to monetize their residual biomass.
    2) Reducing the amount of cars travelling in the city by developing a public transportation system. An Odd/ Even scheme is not enough and is very difficult to enforce.
    3) Reducing the amount of pollutants created as by-products of electrical production by enforcing higher standards in terms of pollutants emissions.
    Delhi is not the first city to face such challenges and should look for solutions within London or Los Angeles that have successfully combatted air pollution. Obviously, these proposed solutions are not easy to implement and will require significant capital investments, but are in my opinion, the only way to get on the path towards sustainable growth.


  2. This was certainly not a topic I knew much about, so thank you for the interesting prompt. I thought your first recommendation on temporarily banning private cars was very interesting. It definitely sounds like a solution with far-reaching benefits beyond the current issue with pollution. A concern, however, would be on the business side – how would the auto industry react and deal with such a drastic change? In the Reuters article below, it’s mentioned that Tata Motors’ market value fell nearly 5% after the initial trial was announced. Couple that with the fact that Delhi alone makes 7% of total Indian auto sales, and you have a fairly significant investment issue. Auto companies require a ton of upfront capital and certainly cannot react quickly to regulatory change – business plans and investment decisions are usually made years in advance. What would be the magnitude of such a ban on Delhi’s labor market? How would automakers and lobbyists react, and is the government prepared to face that challenge?

  3. This is a problem China is facing as well, as you pointed out in the article. Among the three suggestions you made which are all important, my personal thought is banning all private cars is not quite practical, because 1) it will raise lots of complaint and potentially creates chaos in the short term; 2) car pollution is not the biggest source of air pollution, unqualified construction emission is. Therefore, what I would suggest Indian government to do are 1) develop public transportation system and encourage/incentivize people to use 2) incentivize people to use electric cars 3) develop clean technologies to replace the energies creating pollution and encourage companies to use 4) strictly regulate the pollution emission and implement significant penalties for violation. Hope the blue sky will one day come back!

  4. This is an issue close to my heart – Delhi’s quality of air is so poor now that it would be a primary reason for me choosing to live in other cities, despite it being my hometown (sort of). I agree with all the points mentioned in the article, and would want to additionally bring up the angle of governance and regulation. Even now, bipartisan politics, similar to what is seen in the US, has prevented the Chief Minister (CM) of Delhi from even meeting with the CMs of the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana (which are the primary areas where burning of plant debris leads to pollution overflow into Delhi). To make things worse, Delhi is governed by the Aam Aadmi Party, a political upstart, which threatens the federal government’s Bharatiya Janta Party, also headquartered in Delhi. The blame game between the two parties and an inability to work together has led to zero political will to do anything about a massive public health crisis. Business and innovation will find long-term sustainable solutions, but political solutions are needed to solve the immediate catastrophe.

  5. Wow, what an interesting read! I traveled to Delhi earlier this year, and I was amazed by the number of cars on the road, whether personal vehicles or taxi cabs. I was also amazed at the number of trucks and transport vehicles on the highways around Delhi. And while the latter may not be as equally prevalent in the city (just an observation from my limited time in the city), I think that they also exacerbate the situation. When I lived in Seoul, there was sometimes a haze in the air, which was dubbed “yellow dust” or “yellow sand.” While some was due to pollution drift from China, there is also significant contribution from coal plants, an excessive amount of cars on the road, and industrial plants. [1] As the pollution expands beyond Delhi and into other cities, I think there will be a increased need to focus on measures to encourage clean economic development. India is a bustling emerging market, and I think that investing in companies that make clean emission cars would be a great opportunity for not just India, but also other countries in Southeast Asia. Expanding Delhi’s transportation network, focused on clean technology, would indeed require heavy capital investment in infrastructure and take time to innovate and build, but I think this is also a way to decrease the volume of traffic on the streets in the long term. Perhaps enacting a tax to own a high pollution emitting private vehicle in Delhi would also limit the number of private cars on the road and encourage more people to use more accessible transportation.

  6. Thanks for bringing this up!
    Having traveled to New Delhi/Gurgaon nearly every week for the last 2 years, I can attest to this issue having exacerbated to the point where vehicular visibility was often reduced to <25metres as we waited for hours in traffic.
    1) Regulating passenger vehicles: I want to argue that inspite of passenger vehicles contributing to <10% of the pollution, this was an impactful move. The AAP mentioned by Azeez in his comments, did enforce controversial time restrictions on vehicles (popularly called the even/odd rulle where even license plates could only ply on certain days of the week). While, this did temporarily have some minor impact on emissions, I think the larger impact of this was the conversation it successfully ignited bringing people's attention to the issue.
    2) Need to educating people on clean air being a human right: The larger problem in Delhi is the shocking absence of an outcry over such a massive issue impacting every segment of the society – rich and poor – indiscriminately. This problem needs a step-change solution and in the current political climate in India – it can only come from a massive public movement. Today, absence of awareness, prevents people from attributing responsibility of this issue to the public health authorities – allowing them to be largely complacent.
    3) Finding long-term solutions that will align with short-term power: Unlike a city like Beijing where the government is stable and can enforce long-term measures, the disadvantage of a multi-party democracy is the urgency to take immediate, short-term action and not take long term actions. There is a lot to learn from the success of Beijing but it needs to be re-interpreted to the Indian context.

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