Delhi beats Beijing for bad air quality

Indian media and Delhi administrators are not amused. They are up in arms and struggling to find reasons why the Yale 2014 Environmental Performance Index is not correct when it states that Delhi’s air is worse than in Beijing.

Times of India: Delhi’s air quality is indeed very poor but not as poor as Beijing’s, claim scientists. After an international newspaper recently reported that Delhi’s air quality this January has been worse than Beijing’s, System of Air Quality Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) – under the Union earth sciences ministry – issued a clarification on Tuesday.

Data from nine monitoring stations in Delhi states that PM 2.5 (fine respirable particles) never crossed 350 micrograms per cubic metre while in Beijing it did cross 500 microgram per cubic metre and went up to 650 micrograms per cubic metre. …

“It is true that Delhi is reeling under very poor air quality. But in terms of concentration of pollutants, we are doing far better than Beijing which has declared emergency conditions because of their air quality. Our PM 10 (coarse particles) and PM 2.5 are both high but not extreme. High PM 10 levels in Delhi can be attributed to road and construction dust while high PM 2.5 levels in Delhi can be attributed to incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and biomass,” said Gufran Beig, chief project scientist at SAFAR.

What they seem to forget is that while building wastes are the main source of PM10 coarse particles, they also – inevitably – produce a large quantity of fine particles. Incomplete combustion in diesel engines produce only fine particles.

They are wasting energy on the wrong fight. Whether Delhi is worse or better than Beijing is irrelevant. The point is that Delhi is as bad as it is.

I visit Delhi 5 or 6 times every year and it has the worst air quality that I experience. It is dust particles in the main – and a lot of that is from the ubiquitous building rubble and  building materials lying in piles (some small and some large) all over the city. The diesel engine particulates have – I think – reduced after the introduction of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) for taxis and autos but they build up every night when the long-distance trucks roll through the city (they are banned during the day).

But Delhi is essentially a huge building site. In new building projects (many for domestic dwellings), building materials (bricks, sand, cement, tiles, sewer pipes….) are all brought and dumped in open piles on the street long before any building actually commences. Even completed building projects leave behind their piles of sand and bricks and rubble on the street which are never cleaned up. If a road is dug up for any reason the remaining mud and rubble is never actually cleared up . it is usually just pushed to one side. The last mile syndrome applies and nothing ever gets finally or properly finished.

But the real issue is one of attitude and behaviour. It is not that all the building rubble and waste could not be removed or that funds are lacking. The real issue is that “civic sense” is not of great value. The city administrators themselves do not see any point in requiring their contractors to finish a job and the citizens of Delhi are too busy with large issues and cannot be bothered with such minor matters. The administrators pay lip-service to the problem by putting up signs banning the open storage of building materials – which are promptly ignored.

Typical street Delhi

Typical street Delhi

Delhi’s atmosphere is what it is because the citizens of Delhi do not give any value to it being any better.

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