Earth Matters: "Everybody living in India is a smoker" due to pollution, but there's some hope

Hope in India as country fights air pollution

Last Updated Apr 22, 2019 10:08 PM EDT

New Delhi, India — Nearly 1.8 million people die every year just from breathing the air in India. Delib, who is 10 years old, has tubes in both lungs and is fighting tuberculosis. He has difficulty breathing — and so does every patient in the emergency ward of Delhi's National Institute for Tuberculosis and Respiratory Diseases.

All of the patients there, in one way or another, are victims of Delhi's filthy air. As CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports, between 800 and 1,000 people with lung problems line up at the ward every day for treatment.

"We have no non-smokers in India. Everybody living in India is a smoker," said Dr. Arvind Kumar, a prominent chest surgeon and founder of the Lung Care Foundation. What Dr. Kumar means by that bold statement is that every single person in India is a smokers just because the country's polluted air.

At its worst, it can be 70 times dirtier than what the World Health Organization considers safe.

In Delhi, a booming city of 19 million, 1,000 more cars hit the road every day, contributing to smog that's dangerous in many ways. But the real cost of the pollution is its toll on human health.

Dr. Kumar said patients suffer strokes, stunted brain development, heart attacks, hypertension, and birth defects, as well as an "increased incidence of all kinds of respiratory problems, diabetes, obesity, pneumonia, lung cancer," all linked to the filthy air.

So politicians were left with no choice; they had to at least try to go green.

"Inevitable" greening of India 

If you want a taxi in Delhi, you get into a rickshaw. But with 100,000 rickshaws spewing pollution into the air, the government had to do something. First it banned gasoline-powered ones. Now the natural gas ones are being phased out, because the future is electric.

The new rickshaws are being built at the Shigan Evoltz factory on Delhi's outskirts. They may not be very high-tech, but the vehicles are zero-emission.

Shishir Agrawal, Evoltz's managing director, headed the shift to electric models three years ago. He said India going electric is "inevitable."

Already the e-rickshaws are a hit. They're cheaper to run, they can be recharged by the driver at home, and the government is about to subsidize the cost of batteries.

Why would the government do that? Because India can't clean up unless everyone, even the poorest in the country, can afford to join in.

Hope for the future

Take traditional cooking fires in the slums. They send fine particles of burning wood, garbage, and even dung, deep into the lungs. Smoke is a huge part of Delhi's dirty air problem, so while cooking fires may nourish a whole family, they make everyone's health a whole lot worse.

So the government is subsidizing an alternative: clean-burning natural gas stoves at a price almost everyone can manage.

"Air is needed for every breath," Dr. Kumar said. "The only thing you can do if you want to avoid total damage is to stop breathing, which unfortunately you cannot do for more than a minute."

There is some hope. Peak pollution levels in Delhi seem to have leveled off. Now the urgent challenge is to actually bring them down.