Far out on New Delhi’s southern and eastern fringes the rows of high-rises suddenly turn skeletal.
The population of the Indian capital, already the second-largest in the world, is forecast to grow by 9 million in the next 15 years and despite a lull in new projects, areas such as Noida are a universe of building sites, cranes and workers.
The empty towers stretch as far as can be seen — which is only about 300m. Like much of New Delhi on most winter mornings, Noida is blanketed in thick smog and a heavy dust that cakes windows and clogs throats.
A comprehensive study last year of what is to blame for New Delhi’s poor air identified some obvious sources, such as car emissions, the city’s coal-fired power stations and rubbish fires both small and literally mountainous, but it also highlighted more unlikely culprits.
Dust kicked up by cars along New Delhi’s vast and growing road network contributes between 33 and 56 percent of the most harmful pollutants in the city’s atmosphere.
The city’s construction sites, and the production of the raw materials that feed them — such as bricks and concrete — are also an outsized contributor to the foul air that some lung specialists warn is making New Delhi hazardous, particularly for children and the elderly.
In a nation largely under construction — by some rough projections, about 70 percent of the buildings that will exist in India’s cities by 2030 are yet to be built — controlling the dust produced by roads and building sites is an important, but largely neglected, part of clearing New Delhi’s air, according to environmental groups.
Landlocked by treeless plains and deserts, New Delhi is inherently dusty.
“It’s one of the reasons we can’t have air quality standards as strict or high as the US,” said Sarath Guttikunda, the founder of UrbanEmissions, an air-pollution research group. “Our annual standard for PM2.5 pollutants [fine particulate matter measuring 2.5 micrometers or smaller in diameter] is 40 units, but the World Health Organization’s guideline is 10.”
However, poor building standards and antiquated practices, multiplied across thousands of building sites, make construction and demolition the third-largest contributor of coarse pollutants — strongly linked in a 2015 study to heart disease.
At one building site in Chittaranjan Park, an affluent southern neighborhood, half-covered piles of rubble spill out on to the pavement. No fences have been erected to keep the wind from whipping dust out into the street. Enormous mounds of dirt left in empty lots, or simply dumped at the roadside, are also a common sight.
“The Indian construction contractor is trying to maximize his margins,” Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment researcher Polash Mukherjee said. “If he’s constructing his house, he’s not required to go to a facility by law and dispose of the waste. Unless he’s forced by [the] government to cover his trucks when he transports raw materials, he won’t do it.”
Builders are not just cutting corners: New Delhi simply lacks the capacity to safely process the amount of construction waste it produces.
A senior environmental engineer at the Delhi Pollution Control Committee told the Guardian that facilities allow for about 1,000 tonnes of waste to be processed per day, but the city produces an estimated 3,600 tonnes.