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Are Fossil Fuels to Blame for New Delhi’s Air Pollution? Part 1

The Air Pollution Crisis

Air pollution in India has become an internationally recognized crisis. New Delhi, the country’s capital, has unenviably earned the title of being the world’s most polluted city. A 2014 study conducted by the World Health Organization determined that out of a total of 1,600 global cities, New Delhi’s air was found to be the most toxic (Bengali, 2016). Some environmentalists and international policymakers have pointed the blame exclusively at fossil fuels. However, upon close examination of the air pollution sources, fossil fuels may only be a small part of India’s air pollution problem.

For decades, New Delhi has experienced significant levels of smog. However, in recent years, the city has become choked with smog levels that are over six times worse than what the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers to be “unhealthy.” In fact, in November 2017, it was reported that the air in New Delhi reached a reading of 999 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter on the Air Quality Index, which is an index that the EPA uses to measure daily air quality (Irfan, 2017). A measurement of 999 is tremendously hazardous, given that the Air Quality Index considers any measurement above 150 to be “unhealthy.” Moreover, it has been estimated that nearly 1.5 million Indians die annually as a result of both indoor and outdoor air pollution (Gardiner, 2015).

Source: Pixabay, Foto-Rabe

The Sources of Air Pollution

Thirteen of the top 20 cities in the world with the worst air pollution are located in India (Rizwan et al, 2013). The epicenter of India’s worst air pollution can be found in New Delhi. The air quality in New Delhi often registers ten times worse than the air found in Beijing, which is a city in China that has become notorious for its poor air quality (Doshi, 2017). The thick and toxic smog that envelops New Delhi comes as a result of a variety of sources.

Regional sources of air pollution include crop burning and coal-fired power plants. Localized sources of New Delhi air pollution include motor vehicles, garbage dumps, diesel generators, large-scale construction sites, and residential heating and cooking. While India has tried to implement policies and guidelines to limit air pollution from fossil fuels, the country has failed to alleviate its oppressive smog problem by neglecting the other sources of air pollution. Dirty fuels for cooking and heating, crop burning, and large-scale garbage dumps and construction sites are some of the chief contributing sources to India’s air pollution.

Source: Marshall Distel

Dirty Fuels for Cooking and Heating

According to the World Health Organization, India has the highest death rate in the world from chronic respiratory diseases and asthma (Gardiner, 2015). One of the biggest sources of indoor air pollution comes as a result of dirty fuels used for cooking and heating. Rather than cooking and heating with clean-burning fuels like natural gas, many Indian households use biomass as a cheap source of fuel. The use of cow dung and firewood in traditional indoor open fire burners contributes to profoundly negative health impacts (Kishore & Spears, 2011). About half of all households in India cook with solid biomass fuels, while over 85 percent of all rural households use biomass for cooking (NSSO, 2007). When it comes to heating and cooking, the lack of adequate natural gas infrastructure has resulted in Indians burning other fuels that create toxic indoor air pollution and contribute to an estimated 450,000 to 550,000 annual premature deaths in India (Kishore & Spears, 2011).

Source: Pixabay, Ermi_Jack

Crop Burning 

A significant portion of New Delhi’s air pollution has origins in the rural northern states of Haryana, Punjab and Western Uttar Pradesh (Irfan, 2017). A rise in crop burning has sent massive plumes of smoke to settle over New Delhi. The unique topography of the region surrounding New Delhi functions as a basin that allows the smoke to drift into the capital city. The smoke then mixes with the other urban-sourced pollutants and adds to the dense blanket of smog. Even though crop burning was banned in 2015, it has remained largely unenforced. The farmers in the rural northern states burn their crops at the end of a season to clear large areas of land to prepare for the next crop season. Between September and November 2017, satellite imagery confirmed the presence of 40,510 active fires in the northern states (Sharma, 2017).

The burning of agricultural crop residue releases greenhouse gases, volatile organic compounds, and other fine particulates that threaten the health of humans (Jain et al, 2014). As the population of India has continued to rise, the country has become even more dependent on the rural agrarian states to provide the rest of the country with enough food. At the end of each growing season, a massive amount of agricultural biomass is left in the fields. While some of the biomass is used for animal feed, the disposal of the rest has become a significant challenge. Crop burning has become the most efficient method for farmers to clear their land. As a result, New Delhi often experiences episodic pollution events, particularly in the fall and winter months, when the smoke from the crop burning drifts south to combine with a toxic cocktail of other local pollutants (Jain et al, 2014).

Source: Pixabay, stevepb

Garbage Dumps and Large-Scale Construction Sites    

As one of the biggest and most rapidly expanding cities in the world, New Delhi has been forced to deal with many of the unintended side effects of population growth. Both large-scale construction projects and massive garbage dumps can be found throughout New Delhi and the surrounding region. In addition to the pollutants that are released by construction vehicles, construction sites generate a significant amount of dust and often release a multitude of volatile organic compounds into the air.

In addition to large-scale construction sites, solid waste dumps also emit harmful pollutants. As New Delhi has become increasingly urbanized, the city has had to handle more solid waste. The capital city lacks an efficient waste management system to effectively manage the excess garbage. There are numerous large landfills around New Delhi that emit toxic methane gases. Furthermore, these garbage dumps pose as significant hazards to nearby residents because of their flammability. A small spark has the ability to turn a methane-emitting landfill into an inferno. The Delhi Pollution Control Committee has released reports that estimate that between seven to nine percent of the city’s air pollution can be directly attributed to the waste dumps, many of which have been on fire for years (Sharma & Mallica, 2016).

Source: Marshall Distel

Part two of this series critically evaluates the fossil fuel sources of New Delhi’s air pollution.


Bengali, S. (2016). To fight the world’s worst air pollution, New Delhi forces cars off the roads. Los Angeles Times.

Doshi, V. (2017). New Delhi’s pollution is off the charts — and it’s making residents ill. The Washington Post.–and-its-making-residents-ill/2017/11/10/d39901e6-c489-11e7-9922-4151f5ca6168_story.html?utm_term=.7bb8dd7bc4e2

Gardiner, H. (2015). Delhi Wakes Up to an Air Pollution Problem It Cannot Ignore. New York Times.

Irfan, U. (2017). How Delhi became the most polluted city on Earth. Vox.

Jain et al. (2014). Emission of Air Pollutants from Crop Residue Burning in India. Aerosol and Air Quality Research. 14: 422–430.

Kishore, A., and Spears, D. (2011). Clean cooking fuel, women’s intrahousehold status, and son preference in rural India. 1-24. Princeton University.

NSSO, (2007). Energy Sources of Indian Households for Cooking and Lighting. Report 511, National Sample Survey Organization, Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation Government of India.

Rizwan et al. (2013). Air pollution in Delhi: Its Magnitude and Effects on Health. Indian Journal of Community Medicine. 38(1): 4–8.

Sharma, M., and Mallica, J. (2016). Landfills or pollution bombs? Delhi’s garbage dumps spewing toxic gases. Hindustan Times.

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