On May 29, journalist Gardiner Harris wrote his final piece as the New York Times South Asia correspondent. After three years on the beat, he delivered a summation of life in India that was equal parts horrifying memoir and scathing indictment of the government’s environmental policy. The descriptions of Delhi’s fetid air and water are grotesque, but it is the terror Harris experienced as a parent that truly drives the point home. While living in Delhi, Harris’ young son Bram developed debilitating asthma that required frequent injections of steroids and a heavy reliance on an inhaler.
Harris wrote that he and his wife were prepared for Delhi’s “insistent beggars, endemic dengue and summertime temperatures that reach 120 degrees. But we had little inkling just how dangerous this city would be for our boys.”
The Price of Progress
India, like China, has been developing at a breakneck pace over the last decade. Its economy is the fastest growing in the world and is on track to surpass Russia’s this year and almost equal Brazil’s by 2016. In April, Moody’s raised India’s credit rating outlook and Nick Smithie, chief investment strategist at Emerging Global Advisors, told CNN Money that the country “is in a real sweet spot.”
Yet this economic development, as in China, has a price: Pollution.
Of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, India is home to 13. China has three. Its Ganga and Yamnuna rivers are among the 10 most polluted rivers in the world (China has just one, the Yellow River). Fifty percent of the groundwater in the Indo-Gangetic plains (where half of the population lives) is contaminated, and an analysis by the Central Pollution Control Board has concluded that about 66 percent of 290 rivers surveyed have high organic pollution.
Consider this: In Beijing, the smog is so thick and constant that readings of PM2.5 (particles of matter measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) leap right off the Air Quality Index chart. These particles, generated by combustion activities and industrial processes that contribute to smog, have been linked to 670,000 premature deaths in the country by lodging in soft tissues and triggering strokes and coronary heart disease. Incidents of lung cancer in Beijing have also risen over 50 percent since 2002 – specifically, incidents of lung adenocarcinoma, which is caused by exposure to air pollution.
Yet as Kristine Lofgren of Inhabitant wrote in 2014, “the worst day in Beijing is really just an average day in Delhi.”
As Harris pointed out in his article, Beijing makes headlines when its PM2.5 readings hit 500, yet Delhi’s readings “routinely exceed 1,000 in winter in part because small trash and other fires are so common.”
A Preponderance of Effluence
The real perils of India, Harris wrote, are its “air, water, food and flies.”
According to the Hindustan Times, India’s prime source of emissions are vehicles, factories and construction. The country is the third largest emitter of carbon in the world, trailing just behind the United States though several million tonnes behind China. Delhi alone adds more than 1,000 vehicles to its roads every day.
As for the water, Harris writes that half of the country’s total population (about 600 million Indians) defecate outdoors, with most of this effluence dumped into untreated rivers and streams. According to Harris, “For much of the year, the Yamuna River would have almost no flow through Delhi if not for raw sewage.” At one point, the water tank in Harris’ apartment became saturated with sewage, causing him to be sprayed with it while taking a shower one morning.
“Sounds horrible,” he wrote, “but I shrugged and toweled off because that smell is such a frequent presence here.”
Finally, the problem of food and flies. Dogs, cattle and monkeys roam freely through the country, including in urban areas. Their feces litter the ground and particles of it are transferred onto food by insects, which leads to infections and disease amongst the human population.
India’s Next Generation
Recently, scientists from the University of Southern California published the results of a 20-year study that measured lung function in children from five of the state’s smoggiest cities. Children were examined for four-year periods over three separate ranges: 1994-1998, 1997-2001 and 2007-2011. During this time period, California enacted several measures to reduce its atmospheric pollution, which resulted in decreasingly smoggy air.
Over the course of USC’s 20-year study, levels of nitrogen dioxide and PM2.5 declined by up to 50 percent in Southern California’s most polluted neighborhoods. Meanwhile, lung growth in children monitored between the ages of 11 and 15 improved by more than 10 percent for the ’07-’11 cohort, compared to the ’94-’98 cohort. Incidents of abnormally low lung function dropped from 15 percent (first cohort) to 3.6 percent (third cohort).
It is a remarkable correlation, and one of the co-authors of the study told National Geographic it was “one of the biggest turnarounds I’ve ever seen.”
The opposite effect is happening in Delhi.
Over the course of three years, the Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute (CNCI) monitored the health of 11,000 schoolchildren in Delhi. In respiratory health, lung function, vision, palpitation and blood pressure, the children (aged four to 17 years) performed two to four times worse than children elsewhere in the country.
What’s worse, the CNCI concluded that the impacts to the subjects’ lungs are likely irreversible. Put another way, almost half of Delhi’s 4.4 million schoolchildren will be impaired for the rest of their lives. Because of the air they breathe.
Harris writes that many adult Indians living in Delhi already suffer from a range of pollution-induced ailments, including rolling headaches, sore throats, coughs and fatigue. One study shows that adult lung capacity can be a long-term predictor of overall mortality for both men and women.
Harris puts it in even starker terms: “Foreigners have lived in Delhi for centuries, of course, but the air and the mounting research into its effects have become so frightening that some feel it is unethical for those who have a choice to willingly raise children here.”
More Action Is Needed
In response to the clear health emergency its rampant development has caused, China has declared a “war against pollution” that requires government officials to take environmental considerations into their planning processes. China also plans to enact a nationwide cap-and-trade program by 2016 and President Xi Jinping has pledged to cap the country’s emissions by 2030 at the latest.
According to Li Kunsheng, Beijing’s municipal officer, the city’s air pollution has fallen 40 percent since the year 2000, and in 2016, it will close the last of its four major coal-fired power plants.
In Delhi, air pollution has increased by 20 percent since 2000.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set ambitious goals for India’s renewable development, but more action is clearly needed. Delhi’s toxic air and India’s countrywide pollution is not sustainable over the long- or even the near-term, and it’s already costing its citizens and their children more than they can ever get back.