Life and Money: The Economic Cost of North India’s Worsening Air Pollution


Deadly dust storms are part of a “new normal” of disruptive weather events sweeping over the densely-populated north Indian plains, worsening the country’s already-lethal air pollution and causing disruption in the $2.3 trillion economy. Due to dust clouds and storms many people are dead, destroyed thousands of homes and farmers’ crops and led to flight cancellations. 

The government in New Delhi, a city of more than 20 million people, ordered a halt to construction activities as the airborne sand significantly worsened north India’s air quality. It’s definitely a new normal, the frequency and intensity of these storms are unprecedented, said Sunita Narain, director general of New Delhi’s Centre for Science and Environment.

These recent weather extremes are related to desertification, deforestation and an over-extraction of groundwater. Environmental degradation costs India roughly $80 billion each year, according to World Bank’s estimation.

At the same time, soaring levels of tiny, deadly particulate matter have prompted concern about a brewing public health emergency in the politically-gridlocked capital, where there is a rise of lung cancer and heart disease patients. The major air pollution threat in Delhi is from the tiny PM2.5 particles that get embedded in the lungs.

When compared to 22 storms between 2003 and 2017, in 2018 alone, there have been 50 severe storms across 16 Indian states that have led to more than 500 deaths. The report by CSE said, nearly 5,000 houses collapsed, while livestock was killed and crops were ruined across the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and others.

The worsening air pollution across north India in the summer has also prompted renewed concerns that it’s no longer just a winter phenomenon, but a year-long public health crisis. Poor air quality poses a threat to Delhi’s economy.

Added to this, there is a political fallout in New Delhi, where the political leaders have sparred with their own bureaucracy and representatives of the national government.

Anumita Roychowdhury of the Centre for Science and Environment said, “We need to rethink our urban design. Greening has to be done intelligently. Roads need to be designed with tree cover. The Aravalli and the Ridge need to be protected. This, in turn, will protect the water table and benefit the city throughout the year.