For centuries Delhi has served as the capital for kingdoms and empires. But India’s first city will soon get a fresh label: the world’s most populous urban centre.
Delhi is already home to 29 million people, according to United Nations estimates, and is forecast to add an eye-watering 870,000 people per year during the next decade as a growing share of the Indian population settles in cities. By 2028, Delhi’s population will overtake that of Tokyo, currently the world’s biggest urban agglomeration with 37 million people.
Smog envelopes Delhi last week, when air pollution levels were at near-record levels.Credit:Bloomberg
India's landlocked megacity, which only reached the 20 million mark a decade ago, is "projected to become the most populous city in the world with 39 million people in 2030”, says the latest World Urbanisation Prospects report by the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs.
A huge amount has been invested in India’s vast capital in recent decades. In a little more than 20 years Delhi has constructed an impressive metro rail network which now compares in length to the London Underground. Nilesh Rajadhyaksha is an urban specialist at India’s National Institute of Urban Affairs working on a 20-year masterplan for Delhi. In his office in the city, he tells the Herald and The Age that it has emerged as “one of the most complex urban systems anywhere in the world”.
But with such rapid growth come colossal challenges, especially in a nation where gross domestic product per person is only a little over $US2000 ($2890) per year in nominal terms. That compares with $US57,000 ($82,600) in Australia, according to World Bank figures.
One of Delhi’s most pressing problems – air pollution – made global headlines this week after toxic smog enveloped the city. In some neighbourhoods the amount of harmful particulate matter in the atmosphere last weekend was more than 10 times the global safety threshold.
“Delhi has turned into a gas chamber,” the chief minister of Delhi’s government, Arvind Kejriwal, said in a tweet.
Authorities declared a public health emergency, schools were closed for several days and millions of masks were distributed to students. Construction across the city was temporarily halted and the city's government implemented an odds-and-evens scheme for vehicles – where licence-plate number determined road access – in the hope of reducing pollution.
Dr Arvind Kumar, a leading Delhi lung surgeon and founder of the Lung Care Foundation, told the Bloomberg news agency on Monday that “a child born yesterday in Delhi would have smoked 40-50 cigarettes on the first day of his or her life. A silent damage was occurring inside our body."
Delhi is not alone – poor air quality affects much of the densely populated subcontinent. Twelve of the 15 most polluted cities in the world are in India and pollution killed an estimated 1.24 million citizens in 2017.
There is acute public concern in Delhi; at busy intersections and inside railway stations across the city electronic displays flash regular air quality updates.
Delhi is projected to become the most populous city in the world, with 39 million people in 2030.Credit:Bloomberg
But locals are resigned to severe pollution at this time of year. Farmers in neighbouring states burn crop stubble each October to prepare for a new harvest. The smoke drifts over the neighbourhoods of Delhi and blends with the emissions from vehicles and industry. Fumes from fireworks let off during Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, add to the toxic mixture.
Siddharth Singh, author of a book called analysing air pollution called The Great Smog Of India, says Delhi also suffers from a “meteorological misfortune”.
For a period from around October to February – north India’s winter months – wind speeds are especially low. Singh says the lack of winds that can carry away pollutants is “one of the most important factors impacting air quality” in north India.
To make matters worse Delhi is cursed with “poor geography” for air pollution because of its location between the Thar Desert and the Himalayan mountain range. “Regardless of where the emissions are coming from they are going to get trapped due to the geography of north India,” says Singh.
One driver of Delhi’s rapid population growth is the job opportunities offered in places like Gurugram, one of Delhi’s urban satellites. Gurugram (previously called Gurgaon) has emerged as a global business hub and hosts some of the world’s biggest IT firms, banks and business consultancies. Its skyscrapers and shopping malls contrast with the wide avenues and colonial-era government buildings of inner Delhi.
During lunch hour at Cyber Hub, one of Gurugram’s high-tech corporate parks, cafes are filled with some of India’s best-paid knowledge workers. A promotional message played on the local PA system describes it as a “premium socialising zone”.
But Gurugram has another, less appealing claim to fame. Last year it was ranked the world’s most polluted urban centre by the AirVisual World Air Quality report.
“The air here can be really bad,” says business consultant Sweta Sharma as she waits for coffee at Cyber Hub’s Starbucks. “Many people are getting air purifiers and staying indoors.”
Air purifiers are increasingly common in the homes of wealthier Delhi families as well as offices, gyms, restaurants and classrooms.
But many Delhi residents convince themselves they have nothing to worry about.
Rajeev Thakur, a waiter at one of Cyber Hub’s restaurants, claims to have “acclimatised” to the smog since he migrated to Delhi from the east of India three years ago in search of work. “Even though the pollution gets very bad here I am now used to it,” he says. “But if you are new to Delhi, I suggest you wear a mask.”
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