100 Days in India Project

Pollution. A camel amongst the traffic in Jaipur, India

25/ 100 Pollution

One of the very first things we noticed upon arrival in New Delhi was the pollution. Delhi is apparently the second most polluted city in India, with Bhiwadi taking the top spot (although this town itself is just on the outskirts of New Delhi). However the rest of the country isn’t far behind. I read that in Delhi they had to invent a whole new pollution scale because the one used by the rest of the world doesn’t record levels as high as they are in the city. Every single month of the year the inhabitants of this gigantic city are subjected to over 10 times the acceptable levels of pollution according to WHO guidelines. 

We were there in February when it was fairly cool, but the air was still thick and smoggy. The sky had an ominous yellow tinge and every surface is filthy with a layer of black sooty dust. You really noticed the metallic tasting pollutants in the air. We already knew that the pollution was bad before we arrived, so it wasn’t a surprise, but what was very interesting for us was the way that several people we spoke to in India either denied its presence or, most commonly, blamed it upon everything but the one thing that was very clearly the cause.

On a particularly smoggy day in Rajasthan we drove up the side of a hill and saw the valley which barely contained the great city of Jaipur. We indeed saw the valley, but not the city nestled within it because between the sky and the ground was a curious orange miasma. Our friendly taxi driver said it was just fog. In fact, in our experience, fog was the excuse for quite a lot of issues.

The fog was also the prevailing excuse for all the transport delays we experienced, in spite of the fact that we never saw fog in the four weeks of our last trip. When we pushed the taxi driver he admitted that it might possibly be pollution after all, but that this was the great city of Jaipur and therefore this bad air must have come from Delhi. Everything bad seemed to come from somewhere else. It would be farmers burning stubble probably. It wasn’t his problem. He then told us that, in any case, Allah would sort it out so not to worry. If it truly was an issue then a higher power would have dealt with it by now.

What is immediately obvious to me is that an enormous part of the pollution problem is the millions of terrible motor vehicles. I’m not saying that motorised vehicles are necessarily terrible, I mean that the ones you come across in India are the most terrible examples. The roads are completely full of cars, each one chugging by followed closely by a blanket of blue smoke. Every available space between the cars and the pedestrians is then filled with motorbikes belching out thick fumes. I expect nobody has ever tested the emissions of any of these vehicles and, if they were here in Europe, they would rightly be impounded crushed on the spot. You would definitely not be allowed to enter Glasgow’s Low Emissions Zone.

But it isn’t just the dirty and inefficient engines, it is their driving style too. When driving in India you simply cannot just accelerate gently. It is an impossibility. When those traffic lights go green, or even when you think they are about to turn green, it is reminiscent of the start of a Formula One race until the next set of lights are reached 50 metres down the road. At the next set of red lights, when you have to theoretically stop again, you must squeeze into any available space, whether that is on the road or the pavement, and rev your engine in preparation for the next racing start.

What would be the chances of successfully encouraging the owners of the 8 million cars in New Delhi to get a more eco-friendly motorbike or car? Probably absolutely zero. You might have more luck getting people to drive a camel instead, especially if it was possible to fit the only essential equipment you need in your car in India – a horn.