What’s behind extreme air pollution in India

JUDY WOODRUFF: There is a toxic brew in much
of the air over India, sparked by everything from farmers burning their fields to industrial
pollution. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro examined
this problem. And now he has this update. FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Smoke billows from the
fields of Northern India, as farmers burn remnants of their crops after harvest. They say it’s the easiest and quickest way
to get their fields ready for the next planting. But what is convenient for the farmers is
wreaking havoc in nearby cities. The smoke from thousands of fields mixes with
the pollution from millions of cars and trucks. Those noxious clouds of smog make it hard
to see during the day and hard to breathe. Sakshi Chauhan is recovering from a severe
throat infection. SAKSHI CHAUHAN, India (through translator):
I was told that I have an infection. Because of this, I cannot eat anything from
outside. The doctor told me not to go out, told me
not to go out because of smog. FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The smoke is so thick
that, earlier this week, flights at New Delhi’s international airport were delayed or canceled
due to poor visibility. The city declared a public health emergency,
restricted the number of cars allowed on the road, and ordered all construction work to
stop. MUKESH KUMAR, Construction Project Chief (through
translator): The pollution has risen to great levels. Our company has halted construction since
November 1. We had it shut even before that. We are following the official order. We have stopped all work, and all the precautions
and initiatives are being taken to curb pollution here. FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Also contributing to the
rampant smog, plumes of smoke generated by fireworks during the recent festival of Diwali,
a celebration of light where, now, during the day, there is less. Weather and wind patterns are also blamed
for trapping pollutants over India’s capital. Dirty fuels are the culprit from several sources. Automobiles are the major one. On average, 1,400 new vehicles are added to
Delhi’s streets every day, most now burning a highly polluting diesel long outlawed in
Europe and the United States. By 2021, diesel fuel here will meet European
standards. The government has also promised to shut down
old coal-fired plants and restrict new ones. But pollution has been worsening for years. Two years ago, to get an idea of how dirty
the air is, we went to one of the cleanest places in Delhi, the American Embassy School. It serves the children of American and other
expats and diplomats. Many don face masks, but only until they’re
inside. Ellen Stern was the school’s director. ELLEN STERN, Former Director, American Embassy
School: We have an air system that goes all the way through the school. We now have four different kinds of filters
on it that filter out various kinds of things. FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Barun Aggarwal showed
me the elaborate system his company, BreatheEasy, has set up in the school, pulling out the
first layer of filter, thickly coated with a grimy soot. So, if you were to walk outside today, this
is what is coming into your lungs? BARUN AGGARWAL, BreatheEasy: Absolutely. FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The fine particle filters
also show stark before-and-after evidence of the harmful air outside. You would think such systems would be in strong
demand, but Aggarwal says, aside from a few buildings mostly occupied by expats, its been
a hard sell. Among India’s growing middle-class, he says,
there’s denial or indifference, a sense that pollution is the price of India’s rapid economic
progress. BARUN AGGARWAL: The number of myths that are
there with regards to air pollution in India are incredible. The first one that I get by mostly Indians
is that, if I breathe clean air for eight hours, then my immunity will come down, and
when I go out, I will fall sick. Completely wrong, because this is — if you
believe that, then you should be giving your children two packets of cigarettes to smoke
every day. FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Kamal Meattle is an environmental
activist who also designed the embassy school’s filtration system. It works well, he says, but it is no panacea
for a city of 20-plus million residents. KAMAL MEATTLE, Environmental Activist: You
cannot have just air purifiers and cleaning systems for the people who can afford them. It has to be for the people who are on the
road, who are in (INAUDIBLE) or slums. FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Meattle, who trained at
MIT, has developed lower-cost ways to cope with the pollution, plants, thousands of them
in this rooftop greenhouse of his six-story office building. Clean air is produced, and each floor is pulling
in the air as needed. KAMAL MEATTLE: And there are plants on each
floor also. This is a central air cleaning system for
the whole building. FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Plants do more than produce
oxygen, he says. They are natural air purifiers. Their roots eat bacteria and fungi and they
absorb chemicals like formaldehyde and benzene produced by office products. KAMAL MEATTLE: Areca palms for the daytime,
bamboo palm. FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Installing plants is a
small step people can take indoors, but he acknowledges there’s a huge complex problem
outside these clean air bubbles, not easily solved in India’s chaotic democracy. The Indian government says it’s taken steps
to reduce pollution. But, in the meantime, for years to come, India’s
capital and, for that matter, most of its major cities will continue to be among the
most difficult places on Earth to breathe. For the “PBS NewsHour,” this is Fred de Sam
Lazaro in New Delhi. JUDY WOODRUFF: Fred’s reporting is a partnership
with the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

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