Diplomats flee Delhi amid worsening smog crisis

The solution to the problem, however, isn't that simple.

Indian motorists ride past a thick blanket of smog and dust on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, Friday, November 10, 2017.  (CREDIT: AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
Indian motorists ride past a thick blanket of smog and dust on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, Friday, November 10, 2017. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

Delhi’s staggering pollution levels have begun to push out diplomats and spark international upheaval. But experts say diplomatic exodus won’t solve the larger issue facing the developing and heavily industrialized city.

Pollution in Delhi has dominated Indian headlines for weeks and attracted the attention of the international community. Costa Rica’s ambassador to India made waves earlier this month when she temporarily relocated to the city of Karnataka.

“This past weeks [sic] the levels of pollution in Delhi reached impossible numbers,” Mariela Cruz Alvarez wrote in a blog post, in which she described the havoc the city’s pollution had wrought on her lungs. “[I’m] used to living in paradise and suddenly India has become a threat to my health and the health of my friends and colleagues.”

Delhi, the world’s most polluted capital city, struggles every year with smog exacerbated by northerly winds and crop burning in the states of Punjab and Haryana. Last November, the city also choked as the amount of dangerous PM2.5 particles in the air soared, leaving Delhi’s 19 million residents unable to breathe easily.

One year later, officials still haven’t found a solution; PM2.5 particles have instead reached 70 times the World Health Organization’s safe limit, the equivalent of smoking more than two cigarette packs a day.

That “gas chamber” pollution (so-named by Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, in a tweet earlier this month) has led to panic among the city’s international community. In addition to Alvarez’s relocation, several missions have sent non-essential staff to Singapore. Thailand’s ambassador formally requested that the city be made a “hardship” posting, a designation typically reserved for conflict zones. Has Dannenberg Castellanos, the Dominican Republic’s ambassador, also raised the issue with Chief of Protocol Sanjay Verma last week.

“The diplomatic community had asked me to share some of our concerns with officials of the Ministry of External Affairs, about air pollution in New Delhi, and how it is affecting the inflow of tourism from some of our countries and the daily operations of some of the Missions,” Castellanos said in a statement.

Delhi’s problems are far from an anomaly. While the city is facing an extreme crisis, other major cities — like the Chinese city of Beijing, which suffers from notorious levels of pollution — are also facing similar situations. Those shared struggles have been a motivator in some cases. In a letter circulated Tuesday, the chief minister for the northern, smog-ridden city of Lahore — Pakistan’s cultural capital — addressed Delhi minister Kejriwal, asking for a “regional cooperation agreement” to tackle the “scientific and economic” hurdles driving the crisis on both sides of the border. Lahore’s PM2.5 levels have reached 30 times the limit considered safe for human beings.

But diplomatic panic over Delhi’s pollution has yet to translate into effective results. In 2015, around 2.5 million deaths in India were attributed to pollution. Those numbers are all but certain to rise now under the recent smog crisis, though the city experienced a slight improvement in air quality this week following a new set of city-wide emergency anti-pollution measures. (By Thursday, the government had already begun relaxing the new restrictions. Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan justified the slow reaction and immediate turnaround by arguing that no death certificates issued in the city “ha[d] the cause of death as pollution.”)

Still, many are adamant that growing international concerns could help force Delhi’s hand on a number of man-made environmental crises, which have worsened thanks to a rapidly changing climate.

I think if anything it demonstrates the urgency of some of those reforms in the climate change space,” Bharath Gopalaswamy, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, told ThinkProgress. Gopalaswamy said that while officials were trying to address the problem, diplomatic threats from concerned parties might put more pressure on the city’s government to speed up the process.

“It’s not that the government isn’t acting, it is,” he said. “But it might need to act faster.”

Unfortunately, many policy decisions that would help control the pollution problem are outside of Delhi’s control.

“I think the lesson from Delhi is that cities might be clear concentrations of exposure, ‘noise’, and political momentum, but they cannot solve air quality by themselves,” Jessica Seddon, director of Integrated Urban Strategy at the World Resources Institute’s Ross Center for Cities, told ThinkProgress. “Air moves — from outside the city into it and vice versa. Some of the policy instruments that are most effective for reducing emissions — cleaner fuel standards, for example — are well beyond city policy jurisdictions.”

Even with the global community urging it forward, without wider assistance and cooperation across the rest of India, there is only so much Delhi can do, Seddon explained.

“Delhi has made a lot of strides on paper with a gradated response plan, but this has not been implemented as per protocol because so many agencies are involved in contributing to the response,” she said. “The lesson from Delhi is we must move toward more coordinated air-shed level policymaking, and build the institutional basis for doing so. Delhi, as a city in a larger airshed, cannot solve its problem by itself — it must collaborate with surrounding states across a number of economic sectors.”

India’s environmental efforts have drawn international attention in the wake of President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement. India was initially reluctant to join the landmark pact, which brought nearly every country in the world together in an effort to a prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. Intensive efforts by the Obama administration helped change that, along with incentives like the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which helps developing nations adopt sustainable practices and technology as they industrialize.

But since taking office, Trump has targeted India (along with fellow rapidly-industrializing emitter China), lashing out at the nation in his exit announcement and vowing that the United States would no longer fund its development. Following Trump’s announcement, India reiterated its commitment to the Paris agreement, promising to meet its target goals and doubling down on renewable efforts, regardless of whether or not it received U.S. support.

So far, keeping that promise has been a struggle: while nearly 40 percent of all new power capacity in India this year is solar, the country is still grappling with harmful coal and crop-burning practices.

In the meantime, it’s unclear whether the United States will move its diplomats from Delhi or if the State Department will make the city a hardship posting the way that Thailand did.

Packing up and moving, of course, isn’t a luxury that all can afford.

“Leaving has become more public and socially acceptable — not just among expatriates, but among those with the means and flexibility to do so,” Seddon said. “There are widespread calls to shut schools during the extreme episodes, so that parents can take their kids out, and those who can often do leave for part of the [smog] ‘season.'”

This sort of trend leaves lower-income and less-affluent city residents — a large number of whom work on Delhi’s streets and are forced to directly interact with the pollution every day — out in the cold.

The solution to all of this, Seddon says, is to put the onus on the wider global community to solve the pollution issue, rather than simply focusing on cities like Delhi or Lahore, which can only do so much on their own, and whose citizens are, for now, unable to escape the smog the way diplomats can.

“It is completely fair to say that the policy community in India could and should do better to limit extreme pollution in Delhi…but also important to recognize that cleaning up the air is not simple,” she said. “A more constructive approach [is to] highlight common global challenges.”