Delhi: The World’s Dirtiest City

Rampant air pollution considered to be “silent killer”
Ensuring Socio-economic Justice

Khadijah Ali

Rabi' al-Awwal 12, 1439 2017-12-01

News & Analysis

by Khadijah Ali (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 46, No. 10, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1439)

Smog levels in the Indian capital Delhi reached such dangerous levels last month that schools were shut and people with respiratory problems were advised to stay indoors. Several countries issued travel advisories and airlines suspended flights to Delhi among them United Airlines, one of America’s largest air carriers.

“United has temporarily suspended our Newark-Delhi flights due to poor air quality concerns in Delhi and currently has waiver policies in place for customers who are traveling to, from, or through Delhi,” the airline was quoted as saying.

The “foreign travel advice” section of the British government’s website said, “Severe air pollution is a major hazard to public health in Delhi, and a serious concern in many Indian cities. Children, the elderly, and those with preexisting medical conditions may be especially affected.”

The website of the US embassy in Delhi termed the air quality in the Indian capital “hazardous” and said it could cause “serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; serious risk of respiratory effects in general population.”

Pollution in Delhi is nothing new. It has existed for decades but has steadily grown worse due to industrialization and lax environmental standards. When the only consideration is profit, lives are treated as dispensable commodities, especially those of the poor. These people are forced to live in squalid conditions close to smoke-belching industries or near open sewers. Children run around barefoot.

Air pollution has gotten worse because successive Indian regimes have refused to acknowledge, much less address, its underlying causes. Instead, they have rubbished all reports that point to the rising death toll as a consequence.

Air quality readings in Delhi are almost 19 times above the prescribed limit, children being the highest at risk. According to experts approximately 2.2 million school children in the national capital are growing up with irreversible lung damage.

For instance, the Lancet Countdown 2017 said in its report released in October that air pollution had claimed as many as 2.5 million lives in India in 2015, the highest in the world. Despite such grim statistics, Indian officials are in denial.

Indian Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan is leading the denial brigade. In an interview with the Indian channel NDTV on November 11, he said, “…to attribute any death to a cause like pollution may be too much.” When a leading minister dismisses such information so casually what chance is there for remedial action? “Certainly if you have a diseased lung and if the pollution is continuously damaging your alveoli (air sacks) then one day when you die, you can attribute the cause of death, to some proportion, to maybe pollution. But I don’t think we can generalize and say that millions of people are dying only due to pollution,” Vardhan went on in his NDTV interview.

This was not his position in the past. For instance, last February, following the release of another global study that estimated 1.1 million deaths due to air pollution in India in 2015, he said it was a “silent killer” and a “slow poison.” He admitted it could kill people, particularly children. “It can be a killer also. It can be like a slow poison. Which keeps destroying your alveoli in the lungs at a slow pace.”

So what caused the minister to change his mind? It is well known that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gets upset when anything negative is mentioned about India. He only wants to hear good things even if these fly in the face of reality. Vardhan may have had his ears twisted following his statement last February; he would have been advised that if he wanted to retain his post, he had better fall in line.

India may want to project a forward-looking image with tall claims of being the fastest growing economy in the world (not true) but facts are stubborn things. For instance, India leads the world in several categories that would shame most Indians. Take the case of toilets, or lack thereof. At least 549 million people in India do not have access to toilets. They defecate in the open creating one mighty stink. This is a global record!

It has more than 400 million people living in absolute poverty — again leading the world. There is another statistic that adds to India’s notoriety: it produces 75% of all adulterated medicines in the world. Such medicines are not only used in India but also exported abroad causing horrendous health problems and a large number of deaths.

With 75.8 million people, nearly 5% of its 1.25 billion population, without access to clean water according to the report by WaterAid, a UK-based nonprofit group, India again leads the world. Naturally water-borne diseases are rampant.

But it is the air pollution in India’s capital city Delhi that has drawn global attention. Environmental pollution is a global problem. Carbon dioxide emissions and greenhouse gases recognize no physical boundaries, hence the widespread concern. The Indian officials’ nonchalant attitude is raising eyebrows far and wide.

Equally worrying is the mass production of fake drugs that are not only used inside India but also exported to other countries. According to data produced by the Indian Department of Food Safety and Drug Administration, more than 10% of drugs in the market are counterfeit and another 38% are not effective because of their low quality.

In India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, the state’s Department of Food Safety and Drug Administration’s report for the year 2015 said nearly 5,150 drugs and 301 cosmetics product samples had been seized in raids conducted over an eight-month period. Laboratory tests on 4,723 samples revealed that 506 of these drugs were totally fake amounting to more than 10% of drugs in the market. Of the 4,723 drugs tested, only 2,902 met the required standards.

Similarly, government-run hospitals lead the way in using fake drugs. The National Institute of Biologicals found that from a sample of 47,954 drugs, 10% were counterfeit. Many drugs are made in extremely filthy conditions making them even more hazardous to people’s health.

Indian food products are also unsafe. Earlier this year, the US Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of Haldiram masalas and other food products in the US because toxic and hazardous materials were found in them.

It is neither safe to visit India nor wise to import its goods, especially food items.

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