Letter from Delhi, Part 1

Air Pollution as Environmental Injustice

This is part 1 of a two-part series from UMass-Amherst professor of economics and regular Triple Crisis contributor James K. Boyce. This part focuses on disparate exposure to air pollution in Dehli. Part 2, to be posted next week, focuses on solutions to the problem.

James K. Boyce

Arriving in Delhi in January, at the height of the winter pollution season, you notice the air as soon as you step off the plane. A pungent smell with hints of burning rubber and diesel fumes assaults the nose and stings the eyes. On the highway into the city center, a digital screen shining through the smog displays the current level for suspended particulate matter. You don’t need to understand what the number means to know it’s bad.

Delhi has extensive parks, broad avenues, beautiful buildings (like the tomb of Mughal emperor Humayan, shown below), and a vibrant culture. But casting a pall – quite literally – over it all is the worst air pollution of any major city in the world.

Humayan's tomb

Humayan’s Tomb

I lived in Delhi this spring, accompanying my wife who had a research fellowship there. I brought along my work on air pollution inequality in the United States. For the first week, we stayed in a guesthouse near the center of town. One night I was awakened around 2:00 AM by the acrid smell of pollution, and to get back to sleep I had to slip on an N95 pollution mask (at the suggestion of a doctor friend, I’d bought some with us).

In the morning it struck me that it would be absurd to devote all my time in Delhi to working on U.S. air pollution while ignoring the much higher levels around me. In an environmental twist on the spiritual maxim, “Be here now,” I resolved to educate myself about Delhi’s air pollution and what can be done about it.

One of the most dangerous air pollutants is particulate matter. In Delhi it comes from multiple sources, including diesel trucks that are allowed to drive through the city in the middle of the night, rapidly increasing numbers of passenger vehicles, coal-burning power plants and brick kilns that ring the city, construction debris, and open burning of wastes. Particulates are measured on the Air Quality Index (AQI) scale shown below. An AQI below 50 is considered “good.” Anything above 300 is considered “hazardous,” and would trigger emergency health warnings in many countries.

Boyce--air quality

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Air Quality Index Basics.

An intrepid team of Beijing-based volunteers today assembles real-time data from air pollution monitors around the world and posts them on the website aqicn.org. In Delhi I soon fell into the habit of checking the data from our nearest location several times a day. This could be pretty alarming. When I checked on the morning of Valentine’s Day, the AQI for particulates was 399. Overnight it had hit at 668, off the standard AQI chart. Sometimes it soared even higher.

Boyce--air quality readings

Air pollution readings in Delhi, Feb. 14, 2015, 9:00 AM. Source: aqicn.org

A month before I arrived in Delhi, the Centre for Science and Environment, India’s leading environmental advocacy organization, released the results of a study in which several residents were equipped with hand-held devices to monitor air pollution levels over a typical day. A number of their readings topped 1,000.

A 2014 World Health Organization report identified Delhi as having the highest average level of particulate air pollution among 1,600 major cities worldwide. In the past two years, according to a recent report in the Hindustan Times, Beijing’s air qualified as “healthy” for just 58 out of 730 days. Delhi’s air qualified for only seven.

In the run-up to President Obama’s three-day visit to Delhi in January, a satirical website reported that U.S. security agencies were flying in 20,000 gallons of clean air for him to breathe, the Secret Service having concluded that “more than any terrorist strike, the Delhi air poses a serious security threat to POTUS.” Extrapolating a bit too literally from health risk statistics, Bloomberg.com reported that the visit took six hours off the president’s lifespan.

Air pollution as environmental injustice

Everyone in Delhi, young and old, rich and poor alike, is exposed to air pollution. But not all are exposed equally. A 2011 study in the scientific journal Atmospheric Environment found that Delhi’s low-income households experienced significant adverse health effects from air pollution, whereas high-income households were not significantly affected. Part of the explanation may be that affluent households have access to air conditioning as well as better health and nutrition. The authors also found that low-income men in Delhi spend on average about 7 hours a day outdoors, whereas at the top of the income scale the time spent outdoors is close to zero. A study by professor Amit Garg of the Indian Institute of Management examined the correlation between suspended particulates and socio-economic status, and concluded that exposure is generally higher in the city’s low-income neighborhoods.

Health risks for children are especially acute as their developing brains, lungs and immune systems are vulnerable to air pollution. A study for the Government of India’s Central Pollution Control Board that examined more than 11,000 Delhi schoolchildren in the early 2000s found that 43.5% of them had reduced lung function, which was likely to be irreversible. The lower the family’s socio-economic status, the higher the percentage. The study made recommendations on everything from where new schools should be sited to when children should be allowed to play outside, but according to its principal researcher, ‘Absolutely nothing was followed up on.’ Since that time Delhi’s air pollution has deteriorated further.

Some of the most extreme exposures are experienced by those who earn their livings on Delhi’s arterial roads, including drivers of the three-wheeled auto-rickshaws that ply the streets. A study of in-rickshaw pollution concentrations found that levels of ultra-fine particles were eight times higher than the levels at rooftop monitors one kilometer away.

Just as not everyone is harmed equally by pollution, not everyone benefits equally from the activities that cause it. Delhi’s upper-income residents ‘consume more of energy intensive and emission-producing goods such as electricity and private transport,’ Garg observes, ‘while the poor bear a disproportionately higher share of the resultant air pollution health burden.’

In other words, Delhi’s air pollution is a classic case of environmental injustice. The distribution of its costs and benefits mirrors the distribution of wealth and power.

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