Delhi’s air pollution problem

 By Nicholas Newman

India is home to 14 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities, according to the World Health Organization (WHO)…

Delhi, its capital, regularly suffers winter air pollution levels of harmful particulate matter exceeding 700 mcg (micrograms)/m³, when the amount hazardous to human health is estimated to be 300 mcg. Delhi’s air pollution is the equivalent of smoking cigarettes a day resulting in a reported 6.3 years shortening of life expectancy.
In November 2017, Delhi’s air pollution levels spiked to 40 times WHO safety limits causing a major public health emergency in which schools were shut, foreign diplomats voiced fears that the city could become a “non-family” posting and cricket players in the test match between India and Sri Lanka resorted to using oxygen cylinders.

Delhi: air pollution hits 'severe' levels, IMA says 'schools should be shut'

Why does Delhi have an air pollution problem?

Delhi, like Beijing, is a victim of its own topography and success. Delhi is located on the Indo-Gangetic plain. The city suffers from dust blown from the west from the deserts of Rajasthan and Arabia and emissions from agriculture and industry in the neighboring states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab. Such air pollution is trapped over Delhi by the Himalayas to the north and the ranges of mountains and hills to the south. Delhi is home to 25 million people and major industries including banking, electronics and textiles. As a result, the city is experiencing a construction boom and major traffic congestion, all of which have exacerbated its air pollution problems.

Economic development
Delhi is a rapidly growing city with a skyline is a forest of construction cranes and building sites for new office blocks, factories and rail lines, fed by trucks hauling building materials and spewing clouds of dust. Industry is said to account for 13 percent of Delhi’s air pollution. At critical levels, the authorities temporarily close the 705 MW Badarpur coal power plant. Unreliable power supplies or lack of access to the grid encourage large numbers of city dwellers to rely on diesel generators or kerosene lamps.

The National Green Tribunal lifted its ban on construction activities in Delhi-NCR and allowed trucks to enter the national capital (

Transport pollution
As is the case in other cities, cars, vans and trucks account for nearly 23 percent of total air pollution, according to UrbanEmission. Delhi’s increased prosperity adds 1400 vehicles a day to the burgeoning seven million vehicles on the road each day. The problem of vehicle pollution is exacerbated by the fact that fuel pumps equipped with Vapour Recovery Systems are a rarity and many sell adulterated fuel supplied by criminal gangs.

Agricultural pollution
The nearby flood plains provide rich soil for farmers but the annual burning of 35 billion tons of straw and plant waste during October and November in preparation for the next planting season not only adds to dust levels, but enhances concentrations of toxic gases which encourage greater risk of cancer, kidney damage, cataracts and rheumatoid arthritis, according to research from Indian Institute of Science Education and Research.

Crops burning in Punjab (Reuters)

Strategies to reduce pollution

A multifaceted approach to tackle the three most polluting sectors is underway.

1. Electricity generation

Coal-fired electricity generation and stand-by diesel generators are a major source of air pollution. In response, India is beginning to reduce its reliance on coal. In the last two years, India has retired around four gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired power stations- equivalent to all of the UK’s coal capacity and cancelled plans to build another 14 GW of coal fueled power plants. Instead, investment is being directed towards “cleaner” natural gas and renewable energy. By 2022, India aims to generate 175 GW of power from solar, biomass and wind energy with a target of 275 GW by 2027, according to a draft report by the country’s electricity agency. However, India’s largest power producer has announced it aims to triple investment in gas power, although a shortage of import and distribution capacity for gas is a major stumbling block to this ambition.

2. Traffic pollution
Since traffic is a major cause of pollution, investment in electrification of road and rail transport is a step in the right direction. Electric taxis, buses and national and suburban rail networks are planned, while truck owners are switching to LNG fuel, encouraged by the introduction of a national network of LNG fuel stations. In the case of Delhi, efforts are geared towards expanding and improving public transport.
Delhi is expanding its suburban rail network by another 103 kilometers between 2017 and 2022. Plus, policy makers are encouraging bus fleet owners to switch to electric buses. Also local vehicle manufacturers including, Tata Motors, Ashok Leyland and BharatBenz are now busy producing electric cars like the Mahindra KUV100 NXT, as well as LNG- fueled trucks and buses to signal their green credentials and at the same time contribute to lessening pollution from transport.

India is becoming the latest country to run long-distance trucks and buses on LNG (

3. Agricultural pollution
Air, river and ground pollution from agriculture could be eased by the very expensive adoption of anaerobic digestion technology. Agricultural plant matter, including slurry, can be processed to generate electricity for local villages or sold to the grid. The remaining digestate could be returned to fertilize fields, improve soil structure and yields. Everyone seems likely to gain from such innovation.
National, state and city government levels are facing a long and expensive journey to address India’s main sources of air pollution. The cleanup of power generation and vehicle exhaust emissions has only just begun.

READ MORE: Air pollution is holding solar back by Benjamin Plackett

about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide.