Three lessons from Delhi's toxic air

Delhi needs to fix its air. It is a tough task but is ignoring and politicising it a good long-term strategy?

The similarity between the severity in Delhi NCR’s pollution and the media coverage around it is that both are seasonal. Therefore, it was not surprising to see the sudden spurt in pollution in the national capital followed by the sudden hullabaloo in the media about no action from authorities. 

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal called an ‘emergency’ meeting on Sunday and anno-unced a slew of measures shortly after. These include shutting schools for three days, stopping all construction work for the next five days and advising residents to work from home.

Sale of masks and air purifiers have increased, cases of common cold and other respiratory diseases are at an all time high, people are out on streets demanding action against pollution, doctors are issuing health advisory and the government is asking people to stay indoors as much as possible.

These fears are not exaggerated with the health faternity calling the current air quality in Delhi as poisonous, especially for children and elderly. The National Capital Region is currently in the midst of a health crisis but unlike other situations, this time around agencies have virtually no clue about how to deal with it.  

Unfortunately, air pollution is not a new problem for Delhi or India but is now getting its due importance. Quality of air is not the biggest problem here. In fact, it is the impact that is caused to human health, which is the biggest problem faced by residents. According to a Lancet study from 2010, India has over 6.2 lakh premature deaths every year due to air pollution.

If the trend continues, by 2050, India could lose over 90 lakh people every year due to air pollution. While 2050 seems far, the impact of increasing pollution can be tangibly felt already, most significantly in Delhi NCR.  

Studies are not conclusive and somewhat contradictory in terms of the source of pollutants but nevertheless, they provide a good indication on what is causing Delhi’s toxic air and that’s where the learning lies for not only Delhi but the rest of the country. The three top lessons from the pollution chaos are:

Pollution knows no boundary: The current debate around the stubble burning in surrounding states causing Delhi’s pollution in not unwarranted. The image from the Global Forest Watch website clearly demonstrates the extent of agricultural fields on fire in Punjab and Haryana. 

While the practice is completely illegal and there is enough knowledge about its environmental impact, it continues due to lack of alternatives. Pilot experiments have shown that the straw can be successfully used in power plants, dairies and card board factories, and the idea need to be explored seriously.

Vehicular emissions need to be controlled. A study by Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in 2011 for Delhi-NCR found that the transportation sector contributes the highest PM2.5 emissions. It estimated the contribution to be around 45%. What’s interesting to note is that as per a 2014 report by Institute of Urban Transport, only 9% people in Delhi move by car wh-ile 14% travel by two-wheelers. 

Road dietSo, these 23% people are responsible for the air that the rest 77% people in Delhi breathe, despite using modes with minimal emissions like public transport, waking and cycling. Apart from personal vehicles, freight vehicles also contribute a significant proportion of these emissions. 

Therefore, Delhi needs to go on a ‘road diet’ – on one side, it needs to invest in improving infrastructure for walking, cycling and public transport, and on the other, it needs to restrict the growth and usage of motor vehicles in the city.

Waste is a serious issue: The government’s ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ has managed to create awareness about cleanliness but it is little known that improper waste management leads to increased air pollution. Studies have shown that Delhi roughly produces 11,000 tonnes of waste every day, all of which should go to the sanitary landfill sites. However, these landfills have only 60% of the capacity.

 Therefore, anywhere between 190 to 246 tonnes of municipal solid waste is burnt every day in Delhi at open public spaces causing severe air pollution. Delhi needs to urgently revise its strategy of waste management by increasing focus on segregation of solid waste at source and encouraging greater recycling and reuse. 

Air pollution in Delhi NCR is a time bomb is ticking every day. Global evidence suggests that cities that have been successful in tackling this issue have had concentrated and consistent efforts in place. Therefore, if Delhi is serious about addressing this issue, it should first start with accepting the severity of this problem and develop long-term strategies. Till then, it needs to develop and environment emergency plan that should kick in when certain pollution marks are breached.  

The headlines will soon change showing improvement in Delhi’s air quality from ‘severe’ to ‘very poor’ but breathing the ‘very poor’ air is bad enough. Delhi needs to fix its air. It is going to be tough but is ignoring and politicising it, a good long-term strategy?

(The writer is Director- Integrated Transport, WRI India)

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