International media over the last few weeks have shared some awful aerial and on the ground images of Delhi. Huge stars like Priyanka Chopra have also shared their experiences on Instagram, admitting it's a struggle to breathe, she needs to wear her mask, and a request for her fans to pray for the homeless who don't have the luxury of staying indoors away from the smog. So where has it come from?
This isn't a new thing. Delhi has had a pollution problem for some time (as do a lot of major cities, let's be honest). In fact, of the world's 30 most polluted cities, 22 of them are in India - certainly not a statistic to be proud of. Even worse, 25% of the world's deaths caused by air pollution are in India. Why is this statistic so skewed towards India? Given their rapid development and industrialisation, you could be forgiven for having thought China may have usurped India.
In urban areas, main contributors to pollution tend to be fossil fuel burning plants, traffic and heavy industrial activity. This occurs in most cities. What differentiates India is the huge amounts of agricultural stubble burning that goes on when farmers want to clear their fields. This, which has been banned in China, seems to be Delhi's biggest problem right now. India's Supreme Court has put a halt on any more agricultural stubble burning but it's a little too late for the nearly 19 million people that live in Delhi, many of whom have suffered breathing problems, eye irritation and illness. Children aren't able to go to school and businesses are at a halt until the pollution levels become safe enough to venture out. An unavoidable factor for Delhi which means it fares worse than many other cities is the cold winters which leave the polluted air stagnant and trapped over the city.
India's pollution problem isn't limited to poor air quality hovering over cities though. Images emerged last week during the Chhath puja (Hindu ceremony) of foam covering the Yamuna river, the main tributary into the Ganges. The Ganges (and by association, the "pure" Yamuna tributary) are revered by the Hindu population to come to pray, bathe and drink from this holy river. The foam was not some kind of foam-party-gone-wrong, but toxic pollution. Some worshippers struggled with the disgusting smell of the water whilst praying, whilst the majority held their ground. People continued to bathe in the water due to their religious beliefs, without knowing the impact that this toxic water has on their skin which then began to tingle and burn.
India needs an urgent and consistent approach to tackling water and air pollution. Knee-jerk reactions from Modi and his government every winter is not enough. They are putting millions of people at risk of illness and disease by prioritising the economy over health.