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Children of Smog in Delhi

Professor James K. Boyce of PERI says there are solutions to the urgent problem of air pollution in Delhi that has put over 2.2 million school children at risk of irreversible lung damage

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Last year the World Health Organization reported that Delhi, the capital city of India, has the worst air pollution of any major city in the world. The issue has begun to get attention in the national and international press. The New York Times, for example, recently reported that nearly half of the city’s 4.4 million schoolchildren have irreversible lung damage from the poisonous air they breathe.

Here to talk about all of this with us today, who has recently returned from Delhi after spending his spring there, is James K. Boyce. James is the director of the Environment Program at the Political Economy Research Institute in Amherst, Massachusetts. He has joined us again after a long time. Jim, thank you for coming on The Real News.

JAMES K BOYCE, DIR. ENVIRONMENT PROGRAM, PERI: Thanks for having me back, Sharmini.

PERIES: So James, give us a sense of what it was like to live there under these kinds of conditions of pollution.

BOYCE: Well, we arrived at the beginning of January, and in general the worst period of the year in terms of Delhi’s air quality is the winter months, December, January, February. And especially what’s very serious then are the levels of fine particulates, little particulates that can get lodged deep in the human lungs. And the levels when we arrived in Delhi were quite, quite noticeable. You could see the pollution, you could smell the pollution, and you could feel the pollution.

To give you some sense of what the magnitude of the problem is, there’s a scale that’s called an air quality index for fine particulate pollution that’s used with minor modifications around the world. And on that scale a level of fine particulates up to 50 is considered healthy air. Beyond 50 it’s considered unhealthy through various gradations. And when you get up to 300 the air is considered hazardous. If the air pollution were to hit that level in the United States, for example, this would be a top news story. There would be schools closed, there would be public health advisories, et cetera.

The highest level ever recorded in China, as far as I’ve been able to tell, was in the mid-500s during an inversion in Shanghai in December 2013. When we were in Delhi, the air monitor readings for fine particulates were often above that, above 600. And in certain times and places there were readings above 1,000. so we’re talking about very, very serious levels of air pollution.

PERIES: James, what’s causing all of this pollution in Delhi?

BOYCE: Well, it has multiple causes. Unfortunately there’s not a single cause. If there were that would make it somewhat easier to address the problem, perhaps. But one major source is mobile transportation fuels. Trucks, passenger cars, et cetera.

A second important source is industrial facilities, particularly coal-burning power plants and brick kilns which now ring the city. And a third important factor is open burning of wastes, including biomass, plastic bottles, and so on. All of these are big contributors. Construction dust and debris is also a significant contributor. So it’s a multifaceted problem. The places where the highest levels of exposure typically occur are along the main arterial roads, and there of course the major source is vehicular emissions, transportation emissions.

PERIES: James, is there a link between the heatwave and, obviously a lot of people have been reading about it because of the mounting death toll related to the heatwave. So is there a link between the heatwave and the amount of pollution in the country?

BOYCE: Well, there’s an indirect link in that both are of course hazardous alone, and in combination the hazards multiply. And there’s also an indirect link in that the ultimate source of much of the air pollution, of the particulate matter, is the combustion of fossil fuels, coal and oil and gas. And of course the combustion of fossil fuels also is what globally is contributing to the problem of global climate change.

And it may be that the recent heatwave in India is symptomatic of that general tendency which we’re observing in many places around the world, and have observed for a number of years now, from Chicago to Russia to Europe, to have higher incidence and more intense heatwaves than we would normally have had in the past. So in that sense there’s a connection between the two. However, it’s quite possible to have very, very serious air pollution from fine particulates at times when there is not a heatwave. And as I mentioned in general, in fact, the worst time is the winter in Delhi when you get very serious air inversions, and there’s somewhat more open burning as people try to keep warm.

PERIES: I remember a few years ago, Jim, in China, in Beijing in particular, there was terrible pollution conditions and people were walking around with masks for months on end. And the health effects of it were many. And in our lede to this story we were talking about the number of children that have been affected or their lungs have been affected by this kind of pollution in Delhi. Give us a sense of the gravity of that problem, and what is being done to address it.

BOYCE: Well, the problem is very grave indeed. I would say the consciousness of the problem is lagging somewhat behind that in China. Even though in general, although not on any given day, it’s not always true. In general the air quality is worse, sometimes much worse, in Delhi than it is in Beijing. My impression, my understanding is there’s a much higher level of public consciousness and associated with that political pressure to do something about the problem, in Beijing and in China in general.

Some of your viewers may have seen the brilliant film Under the Dome recently released in China, made by a Chinese environmental journalist, which is a tremendous documentary about the air pollution problem in China, and had 100 million views when it was released on the Internet within 48 hours. I would like to see, I think it would be a very good thing, if in years ahead we see a similar growth in public awareness of the problem in Delhi.

There have been some things done about it. In the first decade of the 2000s the Delhi administration, the administration for the national capital region, converted the entire fleet of buses and of three-wheeled scooters, which are a popular form of transportation, from diesel to compressed natural gas. And this had a significant impact in reducing the amount of fine particulate pollution in the air. Unfortunately the gains that were achieved in that period have now been swamped by continued growth in emissions from vehicles and other sources. Also, the brick kilns and power facilities were moved outside of the city itself, and that led to some improvement although it displaced the pollution, the most intense pollution, to the fringes of the city. And some of that, of course, still comes into the city itself.

Addressing these problems to some extent requires action by the national government. There’s certain things that the Delhi government can’t do on its own. National fuel standards to improve the quality of transportation fuels would be a big step. Building bypass roads for Delhi so that trucks don’t have to drive through the city as they now do at night would be a big step. Better pollution controls on coal-burning power plants and a shift away from coal would be a big positive step. All of these things are things that the national government can and I hope eventually will pay attention to.

However, there are certain things that the Delhi administration itself can do, as well. The Delhi government, as some of your viewers may know, changed in February. A new party was elected. It’s a populist party. It’s called the Aam Aadmi party, which literally translates as the party of the ordinary man. And it can be hoped that this new government will undertake some measures that are within Delhi’s own power in order to address the problem.

I wrote with the environmental writer Aseem Shrivastava an op-ed piece for one of the leading English-language dailies in India, the Hindu, shortly before I left the country. And in it we recommended a list of things that the Aam Aadmi could and we believe should consider doing in Delhi, starting with better monitoring of air pollution to provide better data. That’s a low-cost thing to do. Very important, very important for public awareness, that data should be available in real-time. Secondly, we think that there should be school closings, emergency school closings when air pollution levels exceed levels that would be qualified as hazardous. Once they reach that hazardous threshold schools, we think, should be shut down so as to protect some of the most vulnerable people in the city, who are the children.

Thirdly, we think that high-quality face masks, you mentioned the masks in China. What you really need for this kind of pollution are masks that are rated to handle fine particulates. N-95 disposable face masks are an example. And we think those kinds of face masks could and should be issued free of charge to the people who are on the front lines in terms of the pollution exposure, who are the traffic policemen, and scooter drivers, and others who make their living by plying the roads, especially the major arterial roads, of Delhi.

Finally, we think that one important thing that could and should be done would be for Delhi to adopt the policy to control the explosive growth in the number of automobiles along the lines of the policies that have been adopted in Singapore and now in Beijing, and several other cities in China. What they do is they put a cap on the number of auto license plates, and they auction off the license plates. So the limited supply is auctioned among people who want to have a license plate to enable them to drive in the city. In Singapore the current auction price for a license plate that’s valid for 10 years is about $60,000 U.S. dollars.

So these things are expensive, but the rich who drive automobiles can afford to pay that price. And the money, we suggest in our op-ed piece, could be distributed partly into building out green infrastructure for Delhi, including bicycle and pedestrian-friendly transportation infrastructure, bus rapid transit systems, et cetera. Alternatives to automobile use, which is sort of the flipside, if you will, of putting a cap on the number of automobiles. And also, some of the money could be redistributed to every man, woman, and child living in Delhi on an equal, per-capita basis on the grounds that the limited public transportation space, which is what automobiles use, really belongs to all the people and they should be compensated for its use. And we think such a distribution of the funds would lock in the political popularity of such a program, and help to make sure that it’s durable even in the face of a potential outcry or resistance from the very small minority that can actually afford to purchase automobiles.

PERIES: Thank you so much for joining us, James.

BOYCE: Thanks for having me, Sharmini.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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