Air Pollution in New Delhi Spikes as Millions Burst Firecrackers

  • India’s capital is one of the world’s most polluted megacities
  • New Lancet report says pollution costs $4.6 trillion per year

Air pollution levels in India’s capital soared off the charts once again as millions of Indians burst fire crackers to celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, despite a Supreme Court ban on the sale of fireworks in the region.

Already one of the world’s most notoriously polluted mega cities, the capital saw its air quality index (AQI) gradually worsen until it reached a level of 1,031 around 9 a.m. on Friday, according to the United States embassy in New Delhi. A reading of 0-50 is considered good, while levels between 300 and 500 are considered "hazardous." Anything above 500 is considered "Beyond Index." 

By Friday around 1 p.m., the U.S. embassy showed New Delhi’s pollution had nearly halved with AQI at 548, which still appeared to be the worst of any major city in the world.

India’s Supreme Court had banned the sale of firecrackers throughout the national capital region in the days leading up to Diwali, which fell on Oct. 19, after celebrations last year ushered in weeks of poisonous smog. The ban prompted some hand-wringing in the city of more than 20 million people because it targeted a Hindu religious festival.

Although pollution spiked on Diwali last year, firecrackers are not the main cause of air pollution in New Delhi. Air quality generally deteriorates as winter sets in because of a combination of agricultural crop burning in the nearby states of Punjab and Haryana, dust from roads and construction sites, industry, coal power plants and vehicular emissions.

A recent report from the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health found that air contamination kills roughly 6.5 million people each year and that all forms of pollution cost the global economy an annual $4.6 trillion. The authors said deaths from pollution associated with industrial development are on the rise and that low-income countries, such as India, suffer the worse effects. For poor countries, pollution related deaths and disease cost the equivalent of 1.3 percent of gross domestic product, according to the report.

In India’s vibrant democracy, coordinated action on complex problems such as air pollution is difficult. The issue crosses political jurisdictions, and farmers -- who are a key political constituency in India -- continue to light fires despite a Delhi High Court directive.

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