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I spent this Sunday holed up in a small bedroom with my six-year-old and two large air purifiers running full blast. Every so often, I checked my handheld air quality monitor. It was reassuring: our ambient air was “moderate”, with levels of fine particulates just a touch above what the World Health Organization deems a “safe limit” of exposure for 24 hours.
Outside, the situation was grim. Six days after Delhi, and much of north India, was enshrouded in a toxic smog— a worsening phenomenon at the onset of every winter — air quality remained hazardous, with levels of dangerous tiny particulates, known as PM2.5, around 28-30 times the recommended safe level.
Delhi’s air quality is likely to worsen in the days ahead; yet India’s leaders seem callously indifferent. The medical journal the Lancet recently estimated that 2.5m Indians die prematurely each year due to air pollution, compared with 1.8m in China. As New Delhi was engulfed last week, the Indian Medical Association called the smog a “public health emergency”.
Yet Dr Harsh Vardhan, the environment minister, took issue with that stand, saying it was “too much” to claim air pollution kills. Prime minister Narendra Modi, who carefully cultivates his image as a strong leader, has made no public comment about a blight that prompted all schools in New Delhi, its peripheral towns and Punjab state to close for several days last week.
But while Indian authorities downplay air pollution being likened to the Great London Smog of 1952, the rest of the world has taken notice. This weekend, United Airlines suspended daily flights between Newark and New Delhi, citing poor air quality and “the safety of our employees”.
I know of one US-based foreign investor, who manages billions of dollars, who scrapped a planned business trip to Delhi this week due to noxious air. I doubt he was alone.
In our little “bunker” on Sunday, my daughter and I sang, read, played and ate our meals picnic-style, sitting cross-legged on a bedsheet on the floor. In between, I answered anxious emails from family and friends checking to see if we were OK.
On Facebook, a close friend who grew up in Delhi wrote: “It is at this stage that you feel like an irresponsible parent for raising children in this city.” I spoke to a heavily pregnant friend planning to send her six-year-old out of town, though she can’t leave herself.
But as miserable as we feel, my friends and I — with our expensive air purifiers and prospects of out-of-town escape— are the lucky ones. Elite Indians long ago abandoned their country’s public services, creating private schools and hospitals, dedicated power and water supplies to escape the shoddy quality of the state’s offering.
Now, it seems, even breathable air is a private luxury. While we stay indoors and restrict our kids’ activities, most Delhi residents have no escape. Indoors or outdoors, they breathe poison — said to be equal to 50 cigarettes a day. They suffer the consequences in watery, itchy eyes, sore throats, constricted chests, persistent coughs, and increased risk of long-term health problems.
In my bleakest moments, I wonder if Mr Modi’s seeming indifference to the crisis is because New Delhi’s voters repudiated his Bharatiya Janata party and handed a decisive election victory to the opposition Aam Aadmi party in city elections in 2015.
More likely, the premier has simply calculated there are no magic wand solutions — and no easy political wins — to north India’s appalling pollution problem.
Cleaning up north India’s deadly air demands patient, detailed work to tackle pollution sources across political geographies, areas governed both by Mr Modi’s BJP and its rivals.
It will require changing agricultural practices to end widespread crop-waste burning in the farm states of Punjab and Haryana; getting tough on industrial polluters and construction dust; raising fuel standards and banning old, highly polluting trucks; getting cleaner cooking fuel to poor families; and strengthening public transport.
It is undoubtedly a complex policy challenge. Just the sort of thing strong national leadership should be about.