Molecular biologist George Easows move to India to start a clinical diagnostics business lasted just three weeks before he was convinced to return to the U.K.The convincing was done by his seven-month-old daughter Fiona. Within days of moving to New Delhi, the child was wheezing and gasping for air because of smog. She could hardly breathe, said her father.Fiona was kept indoors and put on medication. Nothing worked. We had to make a call, Easow said, adding her symptoms disappeared once back in the U.K. and havent returned.For the 16.8 million residents of Indias capital, the wheezing continues. The bad news is its going to get worse.New Delhi isnt alone as cities across the nation suffer from some of the worst air quality in the world. Thats costing the country 1.1 trillion rupees ($18 billion) in shortened life spans of productive members of the urban population each year, according to a June World Bank report.While Beijing and Shanghai make the headlines for air pollution caused by factory smokestacks burning coal, Delhi residents get their smog right in the face from cars and trucks running on cheap diesel.
India subsidizes sales of the fuel to the equivalent of $15 billion a year, encouraging purchases of diesel vehicles that can pump out exhaust gases with 10 times the carcinogenic particles found in gasoline exhausts.The result: Delhis air on average last year was laced with double the toxic particles per cubic meter being reported in Beijing, leading to respiratory diseases, lung cancer and heart attacks.I have no doubt, 100 percent, that diesel exhaust is contributing to a rise in asthma, respiratory illnesses and hospitalizations, said Dr. T.K. Joshi, director of the Centre for Occupational & Environmental Health in Delhi at Maulana Azad Medical College.Diesel exhaust is a carcinogen, Joshi said in a Feb. 5 interview, referencing a report by the World Health Organization in October.Diesel passenger vehicles accounted for 49 percent of all new cars sold in India last year, up from a third in 2008, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation, a not-for-profit known as the ICCT. The number of new passenger vehicles sold each year may almost double to 5 million by 2020 and the share of diesel models is surging as the fuel sells at a 24 percent discount to gasoline. Beside diesel being cheaper -- about $3.34 a gallon in Delhi -- it also provides more mileage than gasoline, adding to the economic attractions of vehicles running on the fuel.
In comparison, only 0.5 percent of Chinas new passenger cars run on diesel, according to Germanys Bosch Group, which makes auto exhaust cleaning systems for the fuel.Benchmark zero-grade diesel sells in Beijing for 7.6 yuan per liter, a 6 percent premium to 89-octane gasoline, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.Indias diesel fleet, which runs on emissions standards as much as nine years behind Europe, will remain on the roads for years to come even if tougher rules are introduced, said Anup Bandivadekar, India program director for the ICCT.The future implications are what make the problem so worrisome, said Bandivadekar.Air particulate pollution causes more than 116,000 deaths annually in India, hitting the younger, most productive members of the population the hardest, according to Muthukumara S. Mani, senior environmental economist at the World Bank.