My Nephew is Growing Up Under the Shadow of Delhi’s Air Pollution

India is gearing up for my favorite festival, Diwali. In Delhi, this is a time of gift-giving, gambling parties, endless eating — and choking on air pollution. Due to unchecked vehicular, industrial and agricultural pollution, this city has become very different from the one I grew up in.

I now reside in New York but Delhi is still home to my family, including my 6-month-old nephew. All my friends and family understand that environment around them is changing: the increasing need for air conditioning, the increasing traffic jams, and the worsening urban sprawl. But it can be hard to understand just exactly how toxic the air has become. While visible pollution from diesel buses has gone down, the air quality has steadily worsened. It’s a whole week until Diwali and the air quality index has already reached the “severe” range of 401–500. After last year’s festivities, some parts of the city reached nearly 1,000 — “hazardous.”

My sister has been ignoring the health harms associated with Delhi’s air pollution, but that’s slowly changing as evidence mounts. My nephew is currently bravely battling a very high fever and his soft baby coughs are hard to bear. According to studies, air pollution greatly increases the risk of contracting viral and bacterial infections in babies. The doctors have advised keeping him indoors or even leaving the city during Diwali. Imagine, his first big festival might be spent escaping his city — away from relatives and the festivities I so cherished growing up.

Sadly, this experience isn’t restricted to my immediate family or even my extended family. The World Health Organization just released a staggering report that 98 percent of the world’s babies living in low- and middle-income countries breathe in harmful levels of particulate matter. We’re quite literally ruining the lives of nearly 2.5 billion children under the age of 15.

The polluted air has serious, long-term consequences, including triggering asthma, childhood cancer and hurting neurodevelopment. A 2015 study found that half of schoolchildren in Delhi have stunted lung development. Our next generation are growing up under the shadow of air pollution and once they become full humans, they will face the full consequences of climate change, which threatens to make this planet unlivable within their lifetime.

We need real governmental action. Every winter, we have a discourse on pollution and solutions. Some knee-jerk measures get announced and the year rolls by without real change. There’s a plan to ban use of private cars, which are among the main source of pollution. But public transport infrastructure is severely lacking while Delhi metro’s unaffordability presents a major equity issue. Construction activities will be temporarily halted to reduce dust, but the central government has proposed removing environmental clearances for construction projects up to 540,000 square feet. Crop residue burning by farmers in neighboring states will not stop until they get more financial incentives or real alternatives. I could go on, but the list of needed reforms and corresponding inaction is alarming long.

Change doesn’t come easy, and changing minds is even harder. But I’m happy to report that last Sunday I managed to convince my parents to buy an air purifier for our tiny human. I’m hopeful it will provide at least some relief to my nephew’s developing lungs. This list of solutions by Nikhil Pahwa is a great start for other Delhites like my parents. My city, Delhi, needs to do so much more so that babies can grow up with same happy memories I have of my hometown.

(Comments? I can be reached at @Shravya_ . Family: if you’re reading this, I will only accept feedback through my nephew’s cooing.)