If you are in Delhi during Diwali, the city buzzes with celebrations. It is a time of giving, of adorning your home with beautiful lights to entice the Goddess Lakshmi - who brings prosperity - into your home. Diwali is about some of the most delicious food, of sweets full of ghee and butter, of all-night card parties and time with family and friends.

Diwali also marks the last day of harvest and the setting of winter. But now in North India Diwali has an added characteristic; it marks the start of a period of hazardous air pollution.

At this time of year, the weather, celebratory practices and regional agriculture combine to create conditions in which air pollution around Delhi reaches 300 times the World Health Organisation standard for healthy air.

Monsoon season is over. This means pollution no longer gets washed away, and the drop in temperature traps pollutants lower in the atmosphere. Diwali celebrations also means burning unregulated firecrackers, which release large amounts of toxic chemicals into the air. The end of harvest also means the beginning of burning the crop stubble on thousands of acres of farmland adjacent to Delhi and surrounding cities. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) reported over 12,000 incidents of crop burning the day after Diwali in Punjab and Haryana this year.

Despite its air pollution crisis, Delhi is only the 8th-most polluted Indian city
Despite its air pollution crisis, Delhi is only the 8th-most polluted Indian city
Image: Statista

The fact that Diwali is as connected in the minds of Delhi residents to air pollution as it is to lights and celebrations is no longer a new phenomenon. Delhi has become the poster child of air pollution in India – not because it is the country's most polluted city (that dubious honour belongs to Delhi's neighbour, Gurugram), but because it is where the conversation on air pollution started and where it remains most concentrated.

The Delhi government is keen to protect its citizens and recently announced it would distribute five million anti-pollution masks. If successful Delhi will be the only city in the world to distribute masks at this scale. The city has also announced a $50 million budget for communications activity to raise awareness among citizens and build support for the city’s efforts.

For people living in Delhi, air pollution is no longer just a concern of the rich; the conversation has cut across the city’s socio-economic divisions. Air pollution is not invisible in the winter in Delhi – what remains invisible is the understanding of health impacts, quantification of economic costs, and ultimately the level of action needed to change the discourse. The announcements from Delhi’s government remain announcements for now, and the city has yet to see any real reduction in air pollution, despite recent claims to the contrary by Delhi’s Chief Minister.

Beyond Delhi, awareness and action on air pollution needs to mobilize fast. Uttar Pradesh is India’s largest and most populated state, and includes cities more polluted than Delhi, but it has a long way to go to catch up with the capital. Recently, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur, in partnership with local and international philanthropic organizations, organized a meeting with state-level pollution control boards and technical institutions in Lucknow, the capital city of Uttar Pradesh. The state’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath attended this meeting, symbolizing a high level of political willingness to recognize the issue. This is a promising start. If Uttar Pradesh rolls out solutions at scale that can cut industrial emissions, address dirty fuel for transportation as well as the burning of crops and waste, there could be a significant impact on the emissions across much of northern and central India.

Celebrating Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, when 100,000 children under the age of five die of air pollution-related deaths in the country each year is a deep irony that India needs to address. The toss-up should not be between prosperity and clean air; rather, prosperity and growth should be fundamentally measured according to indicators for health and environment.

The health and economic cost of air pollution for India is high; the mortality rate is just the tip of the iceberg of the real cost of air pollution. Loss of productivity due to illnesses, worsened mental health and impaired cognitive abilities, as well as long-term chronic illnesses compound the health and economic costs of poor air quality.

In order to truly prosper, India has to grow sustainably, and it needs both the public and private sectors to be part of this growth.

Initiatives like the India CEO Forum on Air Pollution, which was recently launched at the India Economic Summit, led by the Confederation of Indian Industry and supported by the Clean Air Fund, provide new platforms for the private sector to participate. The CEO Forum has committed to an eight-point declaration, committing the companies involved to work on reducing their use of dirty fuels, supporting capacity in the government to implement solutions, raising awareness and changing the narrative around air pollution, supporting small and medium enterprises to look at their emissions, developing projects that can be supported by corporate social responsibility funding, building peer-learning platforms for businesses and developing action plans to mitigate emissions from businesses.

Commitments like these from the private sector will be essential if we are to transform the ‘prosperity vs pollution’ equation for India.