Why Delhi's air pollution problem continues to persist year after year
Delhi's geographical disadvantage does not exonerate government agencies.
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Festivals are round the corner, colours are at its full vivacity on the Earth, but Delhi’s sky looks gloomy, hazy and sad. It’s not that the sun is hiding behind clouds — from which we can expect the bounty of rain — rather, the sorrowful reality is that it’s somewhat a man made cloud that is hovering in not just the sky but on the future of the capital city of India as well.
This monsoon Delhi witnessed a decent amount of rain; rains that managed to wash away some of Delhi’s pollution. Once the Monsoons ended and October arrived, the dreaded smog has returned which is expected to continue all through winter.
Pollution takes centre stage every time when winter sets in. While different agencies try to show how they are working overtime to mitigate the situation, yet the situation never seems to be in control.
There are certainly several contours of this problem and the seriousness of the problem is more than what meets to eye. In the last few years it has become more intense and now researchers have concluded with certainty that air pollution is not just adversely impacting the health of 20 million residents living in Delhi but it has started taking lives as well.
But how did this deadly phenomenon become a part of annual calendar for national capital and the areas surrounding it?
A look into a detailed analysis of the problem reveals that the whole problem can be broadly divided in two parts.
One is obviously natural or geographical factors — something that hasn’t been discussed much, of late. But before considering geographical factors and incorporating them as part of this complex issue, one have to agree that this disaster is more manmade than geographical and climate related.
The main villain behind Delhi’s pollution problems is something called particulate matter (PM), which is essentially just dust particle. These dust particles are of two types: PM below 10μm (PM10) and PM below 2.5μm (PM2.5).
While particulate matter is commonly referred to as the main cause of pollution, as far as Delhi is concerned, very few actually know that the two kind of particulate matter are very different in nature. Not just in their size their chemical and physical compositions are different as well. The smaller and more dangerous PM2.5 are caused by burning activities like emissions from diesel, petrol, and natural gas combustion, crop burning, open waste burning, and combustion of coal in thermal power plants.
The bigger ones, PM10, are produced from mechanical process like dust from construction works and other source of dust like dust storms. These small dust particles along with several harmful gases like oxides of Sulphur and Nitrogen form a deadly cocktail of dust and gas known as aerosol.
Delhi being a landlocked area with no large water body around as a buffer, is vulnerable to all kinds of polluting activities in the vicinity. This is why even when stubble is burnt hundreds of kilometres away in Punjab and Haryana; the acts have far-reaching effects on Delhi’s environment. Similarly when a dust storm takes place in Rajasthan, Delhi’s sky line turns hazy. But this geographical disadvantage does not exonerate government agencies. In the bigger picture, the government agencies are the biggest culprits behind Delhi’s annual pollution emergency.
Photo: Screengrab/FIRMS NASA
Last year, after the Supreme Court of India instructed both, the Delhi and the Central government, to implement a Graded Response System, several measures were taken by different agencies depending upon the level of air pollution on that particular day. But a lack of preparation by the different agencies to implement the system has not helped the cause. And such is the case this year as well.
There are 16 different agencies that look after the problem and hardly any coordination among these agencies exists. Neither is there is any sort of coordination at an interstate level — despite knowing stubble burning is bound to take place after October in the neighbouring agricultural states.
Ideally, the Delhi government, the Central government and local bodies should have a unified plan to tackle over the pollution issue. But will they, if they keep fighting to each other all the time?
Hardly any coordination exists. Such is the situation when even the environment minister Dr Harshvardhan is a Member of Parliament from Delhi. The environment minister announced on Monday that Delhi will have an early warning system the pollution monitoring that will warn people and agencies about forthcoming pollution levels.
But a similar kind of system is already in place, implemented by private organisations like SAFAR. So why is the government this late?
Meanwhile, monitoring stations within and outside Delhi have noted a recent spike in pollution levels, which have already reached a severe level. According to scientists working on the Delhi pollution problem, the situation is likely to get much worse. They have predicted a late spike in the pollution caused by the late retrieval of Monsoon from North India.
If farmers cut their crops post-Dussehra, the pollution levels will hit peak around Diwali. This along with Diwali pollution could make the situation even worse in days to come.