Study finds air quality in Delhi has worsened dramatically

NEW DELHI: Air quality in Delhi has deteriorated dramatically in the past two years, exposing the capital's residents to heightened risk of a range of respiratory diseases, a leading environmental research group warned Tuesday.

The Center for Science and Environment, based in Delhi, called on the government to implement an "aggressive" new public transportation policy to mitigate the rise in pollution, caused primarily by soaring car ownership.

Pollution levels improved in 2001, after the government ordered that all public transportation vehicles use compressed natural gas, or CNG, a cleaner fuel. But the environmental group said its research showed that the city's air was quickly becoming as polluted as it had been before that measure was implemented.

India's thriving economy has created a booming market for cars, particularly in wealthier urban areas like Delhi. An average of 963 new private vehicles are registered for use on Delhi's roads every day, and the imminent launch of the world's cheapest car, a $2,500 vehicle made by the Indian company Tata, is expected to increase that figure. Road expansion programs lag far behind the thriving car market.

"Whatever we gained by the CNG bus program we are losing due to the influx of diesel cars," said Sunita Nairain, director of the Center for Science and Environment.

"We will have to take tough measures to control growing air pollution and fast," Nairain said. "Otherwise, Delhi will find itself in the choked and toxic haze of the pre-CNG days, when diesel-driven buses and autos had made it one of the most polluted cities on earth."

The research highlighted pollution levels measured in quantities of respirable suspended particulate matter - microscopic dust that embeds itself in the lungs. Before the CNG program led to cleaner air in Delhi, the annual average level of particulates stood at 143 micrograms per cubic meter. The figure dropped to 115 micrograms per cubic meter in 2005, but last year the average jumped up again to 136 micrograms per cubic meter, and forecasts for this year are even higher, the research group said.

During the winter months, the daily average is currently about 350 micrograms per cubic meter, officials from the research group said.

The group said that high exposure to such particulates was known to lead to increased hospitalization for asthma, lung disease, chronic bronchitis and heart damage, and could cause lung cancer over the long term.

Provided the government takes action to improve the public transportation system, Narain said there was hope for Delhi because such a large number of people remained too poor to afford to buy an automobile.

"Twenty percent of people still bicycle to work," she said. "We have vast numbers of people who will never be rich enough to buy a car."

K.T. Ravindram, professor of urban design at the Delhi School of Planning and Architecture, said Delhi's government needed to do more than simply improve public transportation to cut down pollution and should actively curtail the use of cars. But he said a desire to promote India's burgeoning car industry made officials reluctant to do so.

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