I have lived in Delhi for just over two years, and it’s incredible how the conversation about air pollution has changed since I first arrived in January 2014.
I remember very distinctly stepping off the plane at IGI into what looked and felt like the lingering smoke of some kind of explosion or fire, or other natural or unnatural disaster.
I’d only ever been to Delhi in May (the previous year) when the air seemed perfectly fine, so this was pretty alarming. My husband, who’d arrived a few months earlier, told me not to worry - “it’s the Delhi fog. It’s normal for this time of year”. But it didn’t look normal, and it didn’t smell normal either. I tried to relax, determined not to be an annoying, paranoid ex-pat.
But the ‘fog’ lingered well into February, as did my concern. I started asking questions about why the air was like this. The most frequent answer I got was ‘dust’ – dust from Rajasthan, dust from construction, dust from unpaved roads. And at the time, that was reasonably re-assuring - ‘dust’ didn’t sound so bad. It certainly didn’t sound toxic. I tried to ignore my own sore throat, and my kids’ night-time coughing.
Two years have passed and now I know it’s not just dust, and it’s not just fog, and it is toxic. I feel like every conversation I have these days, is about PM2.5, vehicle emissions, the burning of biomass and fuel standards - I am not alone in my journey
And what’s happened between now and 2014? Is the air really so much worse now? I decided to take a look at the historical data on the US Embassy website (http://newdelhi.usembassy.gov/airqualitydata.html), and count the number of days that the PM 2.5 ug/m3 level went over 300. I looked at the month of January 2014 and then at January 2016. I wanted to get a general sense of whether there had been any big changes. The comparison doesn’t take into account the time of day the levels were over 300, or how long the levels stayed over 300, or how much over 300 they went, or the weather, or any other environmental factors. So, yes, it’s a flawed comparison. But still, bear with me and take a look at the numbers: January 2016 had 25 days during which (at some point) the PM2.5 levels went over 300ug/m3, and January 2014 had 23 - only two days less.
So, what happened? Why did no one mention this to me when I specifically asked both expats and Indians in May 2013, what it was like to live in Delhi? (They told me about the traffic and the heat.) How did the conversation change so dramatically?
Looking back, there was the whole Delhi vs Beijing debate that was covered in local and international press around May 2014. That was a game changer. It’s not that everyone suddenly agreed we had a health emergency on our hands, but for the first time we had data that enabled us to link our own experience with global baselines.
Over the course of the year that followed, air quality made its way into conversations across Delhi, onto social media platforms, and into the courts. And then came odd-even (which may not have been very effective in the actual lowering of pollution levels), but by January 2016 it was impossible not to talk about air.
So in 2016 we find ourselves sharply more aware of the public health crisis in our city, and the government has moved from denial to promising solutions. It is still not clear that anyone is ready to face up to hard choices that are really needed to clean Delhi’s air, choices that will require action far beyond the capital. What we do know is that living in a toxic cloud is no choice at all, and now that we have the numbers, there can be no return to the ignorance of years past or to an acceptance that every citizen’s right to a clean air can be so severely curtailed.
Aurelia Driver is a South African writer and filmmaker living in Delhi. It was a search for ways to protect the health of her two young children that first sparked Aurelia’s interest in issues of air quality, and led her to a broader investigation of Delhi’s pollution crisis and its possible solutions. She is excited about being able to use her experience in the visual media in working towards broad-based community awareness.
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