…near Delhi. The smog here was so thick, drivers couldn’t see where they were going. At least 24 vehicles were damaged as drivers kept crashing into the pileup. These conditions happen every year, when Delhi experiences a huge spike in air pollution. “Are we breathing poison in Delhi?” “…every two minutes one person dies due
to air pollution in this country.” “I get nauseous. I get dizzy.” When it hits, the nearly 30 million people here are forced to live in a toxic cloud. Scientists estimate that spending a day outside in these conditions is like smoking 50 cigarettes. “As a lung surgeon, when I open the chest I rarely see a normal pink lung these days.” On the ground, a layer of dust covers the
entire city, and, in the air, a thick layer of pollution hides landmarks that are easy to see the rest of the year. Delhi has always been a big, busy, polluted city. But in the last decade something is making it even worse. In the last 10 years, Delhi’s population has grown by more than 7 million people. Today it’s the second-largest city in the world and it’s also among the most polluted. More people means more cars, spreading dust and exhaust into the air. As Delhi grows, there’s also more construction, producing dust particles. And more industries, contaminating the environment. All these things make  the average air quality in Delhi unhealthy year-round. But something else is happening right here, when air pollution in Delhi spikes in October and November. It sends air pollution levels to fifty times what’s considered safe. “Levels go haywire. Many of the machines are not made to measure the levels that we achieve.” The smog is so bad , you can see it from space. But this cloud of pollution isn’t actually coming from Delhi. It’s coming from here. The states of Punjab and Haryana are known as “India’s Breadbasket.” They’re a key region for the country’s agriculture. Farmers here grow rice and that requires large amounts of water. In the 2000s, rice farming here took off, and farmers in the area started using so much water, that the region’s groundwater started running low. So, to save water, authorities passed a new act in 2009. It bans rice planting before mid-June. That means farmers can’t plant rice until right before the monsoon season, when rains come to replenish the groundwater. That pushes rice harvesting later into the year, which means farmers have less time to get their fields ready for their next crop. So, to clear their fields more quickly, more and more farmers have started setting their crop stubble on fire. Every year, all those stubble fires form a massive cloud of smoke during October and November. And it heads straight for Delhi. There are two reasons why smoke in this region makes things worse in Delhi. The first is geography. The Himalayan mountains act like a kind of barrier, directing the smoke towards Delhi. The second is the weather. During the winter, cold mountain air rushes down from the Himalayas towards Delhi, arriving beneath a layer of warm lowland air that creates a kind of dome over the city. The warm air keeps pollution trapped on the ground with nowhere to go. So when the stubble fire smoke arrives in
Delhi, it mixes with the urban pollution forming a toxic smog that sits on top of the city. Mix all that together and you have the most hazardous air pollution of almost anywhere. In November of 2019, India’s Supreme Court ruled that states in the North had to stop farmers from burning their crop stubble. But so far, the ruling hasn’t been enforced on the ground. In the weeks after the ruling, tens of thousands of crop fires continued to burn in Punjab and Haryana. Delhi doesn’t have the ability to stop crop burning in neighboring states. Instead, when pollution spikes in October and November, city officials change the things they can control: Sometimes they’ll halt all construction in the city. Or put restrictions on vehicle use. Still, until India’s ban on crop stubble
burning is actually enforced, these spikes will be back every year,. Making the city’s already dangerous pollution even worse and putting the lives of millions at risk. “Here we are taking baby steps, but we are in a time period where baby steps won’t help anymore.” “What we breathe should be fresh air.”