New Delhi Pollution, A Roadmap To Disaster

The Indian city is among the worst in the world for air quality. Automobiles share much of the blame, with some 1,400 cars a day joining the estimated 8.5 million vehicles already circulating there. But there are other factors too.

Protester in Delhi, Jan. 1, 2016
Protester in Delhi, Jan. 1, 2016
Marjorie Cessac

NEW DELHI â€" Located in a narrow passage of Khan Market, the cosmopolitan district of New Delhi, a small clothing shop is displaying the city's latest look: a black surgical mask on a mannequin's face. "Do you have masks for children?" a posh-looking woman enquires. The shopkeeper Sriram rushes to present her with two models. "They’re cheaper than the ones for adults, 1,200 rupees ($18), but they can be used for six months and they're washable."

This small branch of the California brand Vogmask, opened just a month ago, has had no trouble attracting a wealthy clientele. Air pollution has reached record levels in the Indian capital this winter. In some areas, it’s at least 10 times higher than the World Health Organization acceptable norms. So the rich are equipping themselves, with air purifier and sophisticated mask sales shooting up. "We’re selling at least 20 a day," the shopkeeper explains, happy as an arms dealer in the middle of a war. "About 90% of our clientele are foreigners."

A few meters away, outside of this privileged enclave, rickshaw drivers are watching, incredulous, as a group of Chinese businessmen pass them by, their mouths covered with surgical masks. One of them laughs. He just wraps up in his long shawl, blackened by the fumes. "Foreigners are sensitive," he says. "We're used to it. We've been breathing this air forever. And besides, it's worse in China. You can't see two meters away!"

This propensity of denial is widespread in New Delhi â€" but it's also a question of priority for many. "In India, for the majority of the population it's about having something to eat, a roof, and not necessarily fresh air," says Piyush Srivastava, director of ElectroGreen India, a group that is about to launch a magazine on environmental issues. "At any rate, people don't have a choice. They must live with pollution."

In the meantime, slowly but surely, air pollution continues to take its toll. It's believed to be responsible for 30,000 early deaths every year in Delhi alone, a catastrophe until now ignored by political leaders. It wasn't until the unprecedented peak of this winter that Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi, himself asthmatic, decided to establish for the first time an alternating traffic system.

The move initially was widely criticized, but a majority of inhabitants have ended up supporting it. Thousands of people even joined the municipal police in trying to convince the sometimes very angry transgressors. Figures show that the decision brought down pollution levels by 20 to 25%. But this estimation isn't accepted by all, with some scientists arguing that the improvements are mostly due to stronger winds and the humidity level.

Scrambling for solutions

The measure's success in reducing traffic, albeit slightly, has convinced the government to rethink its entire transportation system. Initiatives to encourage car-sharing, cycling and walking are under consideration. In the short term, the city will deploy 3,000 extra buses this year that will run on electricity, natural gas or biodiesel, and one-third of them will be "premium" buses, with online booking, Wi-Fi and hostesses.“Finally," says a businessman whose family owns four cars. "When you see what current buses look like, some of them are tombstones on wheels!"

Will this be enough to cut down automobile traffic? Many are dubious. Every day, some 1,400 more cars join the estimated 8.5 million vehicles already circulating in Delhi. This evolution is due not only to rising living standards for part of the population, but also to failures on the part of authorities.

"The pollution is also the result of the state's failings," says economist Mohan Guruswamy. "We complain that we still see men peeing in the street. They actually face six months in prison for that. But does anybody mention the lack of toilets in India? There is, on average, one public toilet for every 5,000 people!"

Buses and subways have attracted more users than usual during the alternating traffic period. But their capacities cannot be extended in a flash. "It will take at least three years to make new subway lines," explains one spokesperson at the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation. A new loop, Phase 3, is expected to be completed by the end of the year, pushing the number of potential passengers to 4.5 million from the current 3 million.

"The metro is a success," says Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of the Center for Science and Environment, a renowned think tank. "The problem is that once you leave the station, the connections with other public transports are lacking, often leaving people no choice but to take a cab."

Bikes could be the beginning of a solution, provided there was space for cyclists. For now, however, cyclists only represents 4% of all traffic inside the city, and initiatives to promote biking have been largely unsuccessful.

"Bike lanes are rare in Delhi and when they exist, they're often being used by rickshaws, motorbikes or other vehicles," says Saurabh Kapur of Dwarka Riders, a cyclist's club in the Dwarka district.

Infrastructure is lacking, but mentalities also need to evolve. "It's in people’s minds that the change has to happen," says Piyush Srivatasa. "As things are now, if the alternating traffic system were to be prolonged, most rich people would have no qualms about buying several cars to circumvent the law."

The problem with India isn't the absence of legislation, but rather adherence to the rules. "Everybody would like a solution. But who's really ready to make efforts?" asks Ankit Avasti, who lives in Noida. "Two of my colleagues used to come to work together during the alternating traffic period. Now that it's over, each has gone back to taking his own car. And it's normal. Who could blame them? Everybody wants their freedom."

Avasti points to Singapore as a possible model. "There should be a tax on the purchase of a second car, high enough to really dissuade people from buying it. Unfortunately, the automobile lobby is very powerful."

In the absense of such regulations, some private initiatives have emerged. The French company BlaBlaCar is one of them. "Our activity has increased by 65% in Delhi and its outskirts," says a smiling Raghav Gupta, the local director. "Contrary to France, where our main asset is the price difference, here we're counting on flexibility. It can take you up to a month to get a train ticket in India."BlaBlaCar and other initiatives, however, can't fix the air pollution problem alone.

The multiplicity of issues makes the road ahead long and painful. But India needs to act urgently if it wants to put an end to a public health crisis that has already caused extensive damage.

According to India's 2015 National Health Profile report, cases of respiratory illness have increased by 30% since 2010, a trend that’s visible in the whole country. Most of the attention is focused on New Delhi, but most large and medium-sized cities are also affected. Last summer, the most polluted Indian town was the eastern city of Chennai.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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