Off the Record: Where Politics and Economics Meet

We are what we breathe. Delhi must not stop fighting smog

The truth is that India is not the first to be faced with this daunting challenge and there are lessons that it can learn.

 |  Off the Record: Where Politics and Economics Meet  |  4-minute read |   30-11-2017
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State capitals across the world have taken the challenge to fight pollution on war footing and that’s the only way to do it.

Last week in Singapore, as I walked to the Lee Kuan Yew campus in the heart of the city, I realised I could walk nearly a kilometre in about 10 minutes, my head started clearing up within hours of getting there, and I was a lot more productive and more energetic than I had felt in years.

I started feeling well and realised this is what being "truly well" felt like. The one thing that struck me was the sight of children playing, I didn’t realise how normal it was becoming for us, Delhi parents, to keep our children indoors, until I saw the little ones just playing at any time of the day or night, however and wherever.

The inertia of wellness lasted for about five days and within moments of my return to Delhi, my allergies were back with a vengeance and so was the headache. That familiar feeling of never having slept and a dull body ache wrapped me. Delhi welcomed me back with smoggy skies and heavy air.

delhi-reuters-690_112917072519.jpgI do hope that the leadership realises fast enough that it cannot be business as usual. Photo: Reuters

Delhi’s air pollution has made the city infamous across the world and just like its air quality, the response from Indian leaders has also been somewhat consistent – always reactive, tired and lame. The truth is that India is not the first to be faced with this daunting challenge and there are lessons that it can learn.

At the Communist Party’s annual Congress, Premier Li Keqiang declared war on air pollution in China few years ago. The promise was “to make skies blue again” and the country’s leadership went about it with determined focus, taking difficult decisions and rethinking its development model – making tackling pollution a priority over growth.

The main tools were cutting back the production of steel and coal-fired electricity; making the world’s biggest investment in wind and solar power to replace coal; residents in Chinese cities were urged to give up coal stoves and furnaces at home; car emission standards to take effect in 2020 will be comparable to European and American standards.

The government also announced the closure or cancellation of 103 coal-fired plants, directly hitting out at heavy industry. The government also built a nationwide network of monitors tracking levels of PM2.5 and made the data obtained from these monitors publicly available.

Anyone with a smartphone can check local air quality in real time and report violators to enforcement agencies. The government also strengthened its environmental regulations with increased penalties, fixing accountability on officials concerned. The new air pollution law increased rewards for whistleblowers and enforced a three-year ban on approvals for new coal mines.

Like Delhi, Mexico City also carried the infamous tag of being one of the most polluted cities in the world and found a way to tackle the crisis. It banned 40 per cent of the cars since vehicles were responsible for nearly 50 per cent of the pollution. The permitted vehicles had to present an exempt sticker to show that the car had a low emission score and had undergone testing for smog.

Factories were ordered to reduce their carbon emission. Mexico City’s celebrated Management Programme to Improve Air Quality adopted a multi-pronged approach including moves like strengthening the city’s Metrobus network and further expansion of the Metro. The plan monitored PM 2.5 and PM 10 and included a system of warnings of when the levels of ozone or millimetre particles were at dangerous limits, advising citizens to stay indoors and restricting vehicle use. There has been a concerted effort to switch to renewable sources of power and that has meant the city has come a long away from the '80s when, on most days, the city's pollution levels triggered a high alert. Today, it is getting worldwide recognition for its efforts to fight pollution.

As someone who has grown up in a city of lush gardens and once-upon-a-time clear blue skies to have reached a point where checking AQI levels has become the new normal, I do hope that the leadership realises fast enough that it cannot be business as usual because, ultimately, we are basically the air that we breathe.

Also read: Smoke in Punjab, fire in Delhi


Shweta Punj Shweta Punj @shwwetapunj

Senior Editor, India Today. Has been writing on policy for more than a decade.

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