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“Delhi has brought India’s air pollution crisis into focus. But for Delhi’s residents–and a billion others–to breathe clean air, national action is urgently required.”

Statement from Daniel Kass, Senior Vice President, Environmental Health, Vital Strategies, on the current air pollution crisis in Delhi:

“Air pollution is a national crisis in India. The health impacts are both immediate – including asthma and heart attacks – and long-term, including chronic diseases like cancer, COPD, and diabetes.

Delhi has brought the issue into renewed focus. Its mitigation strategies are to be applauded, but they will have a limited, short-term impact on air pollution, and will do little to protect the long-term health of its residents.

For Delhi to address the most important sources of air pollution, it cannot be effective on its own. Greater national action is required. Air quality will only improve long-term when proven pollution control measures are adopted and strictly enforced both nationally and in Delhi and the wider National Capital Region (NCR). These measures must be sustained year-round and target the largest emission sources.

Recent efforts from the National Clean Air Programme indicate that local and national government stakeholders are up to the challenge. We recommend that India change agricultural practices to stop stubble burning (setting fire to the straw that remains after grains, like wheat etc., have been harvested), strictly enforce existing laws that curb emissions, invest in public transport, adopt emission controls on two-wheeled vehicles, promote cleaner sources of electricity generation, and accelerate conversion to natural gas for home heating.

The situation is urgent and Delhi is not unique. Too many people across India, in cities and rural villages alike, are choking on air thick with pollutants. Until comprehensive national and regional approaches are taken, more than a billion people will continue to be at risk.”


Delhi is reportedly facing a severe air pollution crisis, with schools in the city closed, construction halted and health officials advising citizens to stay indoors. It is not the first time the city has faced an air pollution crisis of this magnitude, and Delhi is not the only city in India to suffer. A WHO report identified that 14 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India and it’s estimated that pollution contributes to more than a tenth of all deaths in the country each year.

Severe air pollution across large regions of India – both urban and rural – is caused by traditional sources of pollution being inadequately addressed (such as household energy, as well as agricultural and trash burning) and increases in modern sources of pollution (energy and industry, road dust, and vehicular emissions).

Each region of India is different, but the main causes of seasonal pollution in Delhi, the National Capital Region (the wider area around Delhi) and a large area in the north of the country are residential solid fuel use, agricultural burning, road dust, and industry. The Supreme Court has ordered an immediate stop to agricultural stubble burning in the states around Delhi. The practice is already illegal, but it continues to contribute to air pollution because compliance is poor and the country has not adequately invested in meaningful enforcement.

Private vehicle tailpipe emissions, though important, capture out-sized attention in the media- which in turn distorts the public’s perceptions about the nature and main sources of the problem. Transportation emissions do need to be reduced, but analysis suggests that emergency odd-even driving schemes have only a small impact in curbing air pollution in Delhi. Similarly, media attention around Diwali fireworks exemplifies the tendency to look for sources that are short-term, distracting the public from the need to focus on reducing emissions from more significant and chronic sources.

The Indian Government is taking steps in the right direction to address both the leading sources of emissions and the need for more comprehensive action to reduce pollution. The National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) requires cities to develop their own plans to reduce air pollution. In addition, experts expect there will be major benefits to ambient air quality as households across India increase their use of LPG under the Pradhan Mantri UjjwalaYojana (PUMY) program, which encourages households to switch to LPG from burning solid fuels. But more action is needed to curb the major sources of pollution.

Vital Strategies provides technical expertise and consultative services to inform policies and influence public discourse around air pollution and its health impacts around the world.

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