Delhi's crisis: a blanket of smog

Delhi's crisis: a blanket of smog

National capital Delhi is no stranger to the rising air pollution levels and grey haze resulting in lower visibility during winters, but the choking blanket of smog that has descended on the world's most polluted capital city since Tuesday is a wake-up call. Life in Delhi and around virtually came to standstill as rail, road and air transport were disrupted and pollution level rose to almost double the threshold that is hazardous to public health. According to the US embassy website, in some parts of Delhi the level of the fine pollutants known as PM2.5 that are most harmful to health went beyond the maximum level of 999, beyond which no readings are available. Woken out of slumber, the government and public health authorities have swung into a flurry. The Indian Medical Association declared a public health emergency in Delhi. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal ordered closure of schools. The Supreme Court appointed Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) ordered a series of emergency measures.

The rub is that the conditions that triggered this public health emergency did not descend on Delhi out of the blue, and the city did not turn into a "gas chamber" as Kejriwal would like us to believe. The World Health Organisation had classed Delhi as the world's most polluted capital, with air quality levels worse than Beijing, way back in 2014. Since then, authorities have taken only ad hoc measures, such as closing power plants temporarily and experimenting with taking some cars off the road. Despite proactive interventions by the judiciary through a slew of directives - the Supreme Court's order banning sale of firecrackers this Diwali was the latest - the executive authorities have implemented them in a half-hearted manner. A report in the Lancet journal last month had highlighted this when it said that pollution was responsible for some 2.5 million premature deaths in India in 2015, the highest in the world.

The immediate challenge for the authorities is to mitigate the impact of smog-related health hazards, especially as the Met office has predicted that these conditions will last a few more days. However, Delhi will need sustained long-term efforts to ward off the challenge of deteriorating air quality. Judicial directions banning crop burning in adjoining states, removal of construction material left uncovered in public places and tackling vehicular pollution must be enforced with greater vigour. A holistic policy for tackling air pollution in Delhi and other metropolitan cities must be adopted without delay. This will necessarily include building better public transport systems in India's cities and towns and laying down strict emission standards for vehicles and industries. Half-way measures that treat only symptoms without addressing the root causes will at best put off temporarily a looming tragedy.  

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