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New Delhi's deadly smog stirs political turmoil

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

India has some of the world's worst air pollution, and nowhere is that felt more keenly than in the capital, New Delhi. There, the air is so toxic that one recent study estimated residents are losing years of life just by breathing it in. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLUTE PLAYING)

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: A vendor hawks flutes near the India Gate in the center of New Delhi. It's a giant arch that towers over a sweeping pedestrian boulevard. It's normally crowded, but the day we go in November, visitors are sparse. And from a dozen feet away, the India Gate is just an outline in the haze of gray, smudgy smog. According to my air quality app, the pollution is so bad, people should stay indoors. It's not an option for vendor Gajender Kohli. He blows cascades of bubbles, trying to lure kids to buy his bubble-blowing kits.

GAJENDER KOHLI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says the air makes him sick. It makes the kids sick, too.

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HADID: A few miles away at the Safdarjung Hospital, we meet some of those children. Razia Begum waits for a doctor to see her three children. They've all got chesty coughs.

RAZIA BEGUM: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: She says it could be the cold or the pollution.

BEGUM: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: But she says she's sure if the air was cleaner, her kids wouldn't get so sick. For now, the pollution keeps her running to the hospitals. And the immediate impact on children is just one way air pollution is harmful. Christa Hasenkopf is from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. She says the worst impacts are from the tiny particles in smog.

CHRISTA HASENKOPF: You breathe them in. They go into not just your lungs, but they can go into your bloodstream and all over your body and act as a toxin. So it causes strokes and heart attacks. It can cause even things like cognitive decline and certainly issues with fertility.

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HADID: The pollution in New Delhi is a brew of emissions from vehicles, industry, construction dust and farmers torching their ploughed fields to make way for new planting. In the cooler seasons, when the wind dies down, it builds up and becomes this visible thick soup. In November, it got so bad, schools shut for nearly 15 days. And yet, the government of New Delhi has been trying to curb air pollution here for years.

ANUMITA ROYCHOWDHURY: It's not that nothing has happened, OK. Several things have happened, and we have seen the results of it. And yet it's not enough at all.

HADID: Anumita Roychowdhury is a prominent clean air campaigner. She says over the years, the government has shuttered four coal power plants. It's made large industrial units switch to natural gas. They're electrifying their bus fleet. Residents get cash if they buy EVs.

ROYCHOWDHURY: As of today, roughly about 12% of the new vehicles sold in Delhi are electric vehicles.

HADID: And she says all those efforts have curbed air pollution, but...

ROYCHOWDHURY: All of that is getting overwhelmed and swamped.

HADID: Swamped by how fast the city is growing. Within three years, New Delhi's urban population is expected to reach 40 million people. That's the population of California. And the city's sprawl reaches out so far that many residents don't actually live in the city's limits. They're technically residents of three neighboring states. And activists say those states and the federal government are taking action. But it's not nearly enough to tackle the problem. Consider electricity - nearly three-quarters of all power in India is generated from coal, a key pollutant. And so New Delhi's residents pay the price, like the daughters of Bharveen Kandhari, a clean air activist.

BHARVEEN KANDHARI: You know, the first drawing that everyone makes is like some mountain, a sun and a blue sky.

HADID: They've never seen that sky in New Delhi.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS HONKING)

HADID: And on a busy road, Baljeet Singh says he's recently learned that pollution is a danger. He's about to get on a motorbike. He wraps a handkerchief around his face to keep himself safe from pollution.

BALJEET SINGH: (Non-English language spoken).

(LAUGHTER)

HADID: He laughs and asks, do you have a better idea? Diaa Hadid, NPR News, New Delhi.

(SOUNDBITE OF HISS GOLDEN MESSENGER'S "HAT OF RAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.