Delhi, the second most populated city in the world, is No. 1 in a list no one wants to top: The most polluted city in the world. With 26.5 million inhabitants as of 2016 and expected to be at 40 million in 2030, the city has more than three times the population of London. There are 11 million registered cars, trucks, and motorbikes in the city, and thousands of factories.
On a “good” day, the air quality index (AQI) in Delhi is around 200, peaking as high as 900 on bad day. For comparison, anything about a 50 is deemed unsafe for vulnerable populations by the World Health Organization, 200 is considered “Very Unhealthy” and 300+ is a hazard for everyone breathing it. And for reference, AQI measures ground-level ozone, particulate pollution such as ash, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.
On March 24, India imposed a nationwide lockdown to try to slow the spread of COVID-19. The lockdown has been chaotically enforced, and has undeniably been cruel to the nation’s massive poor population, but it has had one undeniably beneficial effect: Delhi has seen the cleanest air the city’s residents have known in the 21st century.
Thousands of residents have posted photos of Delhi’s sites under brilliant blue skies, almost unknown in the region of the city. They’re also posting screenshots of apps that monitor the AQI, showing 30s, 20s, even a 7 after a brief rain.
Sunita Narain, director for India’s Centre for Science and Environment, said that while she wishes Delhi’s air were this clean all the time, she “[doesn’t] want people to say ‘Oh, environmentalists are celebrating this lockdown’: we are not. This is not the solution. But whatever the new normal is post-COVID-19, we have to make sure we take this breath of fresh air and think about the serious efforts we need to deal with pollution in Delhi.”
This is a jab in the eye for India’s automobile lobby, which has been claiming that cars made no meaningful contribution to poor air quality. That blue skies should return so swiftly after all automobile traffic was taken off the road is proof that their stance is utterly false. Hopefully, India will use this time to make a plan to help ameliorate their effect after the crisis has passed.
Photo: Birds fly over India Gate in Delhi. Credit: Shutterstock