We don't want a quick fix to Delhi's pollution crisis

Nivedita Khandekar
Nivedita KhandekarNov 08, 2016 | 16:10

We don't want a quick fix to Delhi's pollution crisis

If the Met department forecast of "mist in the morning followed by clear sky" for Wednesday is to hold good, in less than 24 hours, Delhi's air should be better than the horrid gas chamber that the Delhi-NCR region has become since Diwali day, Sunday, October 30.

If farmers from Haryana and Punjab are to be believed, the burning of residual stubble in farms being readied for rabi sowing will be completed by November 15, their cut-off date. The smoke travelling from neighbouring states to Delhi was attributed as a major reason for one of the worst air pollution spells, prompting the Delhi government to shut schools down for three days.

A NASA satellite capture of pollution in North India. Credit: NASA 

And then, if Delhiites are to be trusted, things would be back to being as they were - taking out SUVs, buying another one just in case the government decides to be strict with the odd-even scheme; the burning of garbage in colonies; resumption in massive construction dust, et al. And for the Delhi government? It will also continue to not take any punitive measure against those who pollute, it will also continue to not monitor its own sources of pollution and it will also continue to not take proactive measures all year round.

What went wrong

Doing nothing. Because, for emergencies such as this one, announcements and some action by the Delhi government were more like knee-jerk reactions rather than pro-active measures.

Starting October 29, 2016, a day prior to Diwali, Delhi (and many parts of NCR) witnessed an alarming increase in air pollution. Several people could feel their eyes smarting and throats choking due to increased air pollution; visibility reduced to almost 500 metres or less as dense smog engulfed the atmosphere.

PM2.5 and PM10 levels reached unprecedented heights, breaking all records (PM or particulate matter are the extremely small solid and liquid particles suspended in air - so small that they can enter even the lungs and cause various respiratory problems, even leading to death).


Emergency measures - including shutting down of schools, asking people to work from home, a five-day moratorium on power plants and construction activity - were more-or-less ineffective and the only ray of hope, and sun (pun intended), came on Monday with some wind movement.

There was enough case for taking preventive measures, and following it up with punitive action well in time. But despite the "you just cannot miss or ignore" signals, not enough was done.

The list is endless:

a) Vehicular pollution has been talked about much, but there are no clear studies about pollution caused due to release of global warming gases through refrigerators and air conditioners, two of the most common appliances found across households in Delhi.

b) While National Green Tribunal (NGT) has always pointed fingers at diesel vehicles for vehicular pollution, not much is said about petrol-run vehicles (of the almost 60 lakh vehicles on Delhi roads, more than half are two-wheelers that run on petrol; public transport that runs on CNG is but a small percentage of the total vehicles on the road).

c) Construction dust: For the last two years, Delhi-NCR has witnessed massive construction activity, with the expansion of Delhi Metro being one of the major developments. Work on expansion of the Mathura Road national highway at Faridabad as well as making the route signal-free, and yet another round of fresh properties being developed in sectors that surround the already-developed city centres in Gurgaon and Noida.


There is constant recycling of dust, all of which is of unquantified quantum.

d) Delhi has become a hub for battery recycling and also for e-waste recycling, but in both cases, the processes followed by the unorganised sector are mostly unscientific. Hundreds of illegal units across Delhi - many of them running from residential areas apart from those in designated industrial areas - add to the already toxic mix. Lead smelters, cooking (tandoors from thousands of hotels, dhabas and even plush restaurants), furnaces of various small units, all contribute generously to the smoke chamber.

"The new gases that are used in ACs and refrigerators are not exactly climate neutral. This needs to be studied in detail. When it comes to lead smelters, tandoors and other such point sources of combustion, we find that many of these are not even registered. The Delhi government ought to carry out a fresh survey of all such illegal operators, issue notices for upgradation to better technology and in absence of it, straightway shut down all such shops," says Ravi Agarwal of Toxics Links, an environmental NGO.

It is not that the government is not aware. Both Delhi government and the Centre are very much aware. During a hearing at the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) had, in its affidavit, said dust was the highest source of pollution in Delhi and that it contributed 52 per cent of the particulate matter in the air compared to 6.6 per cent by vehicular emissions.

The problem lies with ineffective or lack of monitoring and missing punitive action against the defaulters. That is something the Delhi government can focus all year round - beyond November 15 - not just in the winter when this problem aggravates.

The Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) does not have either the manpower or the logistics to even carry out such surveys. So, if Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal is serious about any long term action for fighting air pollution, he will need to fix DPCC's shenanigans.

High amplitude denotes the record high AQI in each city.

Vehicular pollution, irrespective of its share in the overall problem, continues unabated as more and more vehicles are added to the choked arteries of the national capital. 

Delhi government claims the transport lobby has proved to be a hindrance in bringing in more buses in Delhi as part of the plans to expand DTC fleet. Instead of blaming the Centre, the state government can work in cohorts with the Ministry of Surface Transport to seek a solution to the problem.

Centre cannot remain in denial mode

But Centre too needs to get its act together. It cannot be in a perpetual state of denial over its role and share of work. Earlier in June, former environment minister Prakash Javadekar literally trashed a research paper by scientists from Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) published in the reputed journal Geophysical Research Letters.

It claimed the life expectancy in Delhi had reduced by almost 6.4 years on account of air pollution and pegged the premature mortality for Delhi at 0.059 per cent. The research also shed light on "an alarming country-wide situation - India has hit the mark of half a million premature deaths due to air pollution." The Ministry of Earth Sciences (under which IITM, Pune falls) later offered a so-called scientific explanation as to why the government rejected this paper while replying to a question in Lok Sabha.

Unfortunately, the government does not trust its own researchers.

Surprisingly, health ministry's July 22, 2016 reply to a Parliament question admitted to premature deaths quoting the Global Burden of Disease Study in 2010.

This study claimed that approximately 1.6 million premature deaths are caused due to air pollution in India per year.So, while governments - both at the state and the Centre - continue to ignore the harsh realities, Delhiites too go on about their lives with the business-as-usual attitude - traffic jams have not reduced, crackers were burst for Chhath Puja and furnaces/chimneys continue to puff smoke like on other days.

All we can do is just hope that the efforts to curb pollution will continue even after November 15 and that the Delhi government, helped by the Centre, will seriously think of both short-term and long-term solutions.

Or, perhaps, that is not Delhi's fate.

Last updated: June 15, 2018 | 17:31
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