Why Delhi's pollution is not just a 'Diwali' or 'winter' problem

The crisis can only be solved through continuous action, both with strict monitoring and control through enforcement.

 |  5-minute read |   01-12-2017
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The quantum of conversation around air pollution makes one wonder if Delhi has suddenly transformed into a gas chamber, which is not the case. Not that Delhi is not currently a gas chamber, but it hasn’t become one overnight.

Air pollution is not only restricted to Delhi. Recently, the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health estimated 65 lakh premature deaths globally due to air pollution, of which 11 lakh were from India alone.


The problem on air pollution may be more aggravated in the northern parts of India due to geological reasons. However, it is the pollution in Delhi that hits the headlines due to the political significance of the country’s Capital. Delhi is paying the price of complete neglect of air pollution issues and here are the three myths that compounded the air pollution situation in Delhi.

First, air pollution is a Diwali or a winter problem. The conversation around air pollution in the city, at least for the past three years, typically starts around Diwali and peaks during November-December. It’s then forgotten for the rest of the three quarters as if it is only in these three months that air pollution is a problem in Delhi. As per the government’s Air Quality Index (AQI), Delhi witnessed only 2 "good air" days from May 2015 to October 2017 while the "satisfactory air" days were 69 during the same period. This means that more than 90 per cent of days the two crore people in the region inhaled toxic air.

While the problem reaches hazardous levels in the last quarter of the calendar year, the only marginal respite comes during the monsoon period. While there are seasonal variations in air pollution, and events like Diwali and farm fires that spike pollution levels, the fact remains that air pollution is a year-round problem in Delhi. Therefore, it needs consistent monitoring and vigilance, which should not be relegated to just a couple of months in a year.

Second, actions in Delhi will reduce air pollution. Fortunately(or unfortunately) airflow does not follow administrative or political boundaries, which basically means the quality of air that people breathe in Delhi is also dependent on the air quality of the surrounding areas — also known as "Airshed". Delhi’s Airshed includes the surrounding states like Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

This is clearly visible during the winters when the farm fires in Punjab and Haryana directly impact the air quality in Delhi and vice versa. Therefore, any tangible improvement in the city’s air quality needs to necessarily include the surrounding states, because Delhi cannot breathe good air if Noida, Gurugram, and Chandigarh are breathing foul air.

This is easier said than done as the states have different priorities. With different political parties ruling these states, the problem only gets trickier. This is where the Union government needs to step in and bring the states on board to fight air pollution in an integrated manner.



The third myth is removing congestion will improve air quality. Delhi has the highest area under roads compared to other metros in the country. It also has a maximum number of automobiles in the country. Successive governments have focused on solving congestion in the city by spending thousands of crores in widening roads, building flyovers/underpasses, but neither has congestion reduced nor have travel speeds improved. However, transport emissions have definitely gone up, because it’s not rocket science to understand that more roads mean more vehicles, and more vehicles mean more emission of toxic gases.

While such efforts and financial expenditure on reducing "congestion" continue it’s interesting to note that Delhi actually has a very little share of private vehicle trips. A 2014 report by Institute of Urban Transport found that daily 41 per cent trips in Delhi are through walking and cycling, 36 per cent trips are by public transport (buses, Metro), and the remaining 23 per cent trips are performed by private modes (out of which only 9 per cent are though cars). What is even more striking is that Delhi needs between 12,000 and 15,000 buses but has less than 5,000 buses and not a single bus has been added in the last seven years.


Beijing has put a restriction on the number of private vehicles that can be registered every year, and London has added "toxic" tax on diesel vehicles, apart from the existing congestion charge. Delhi, however, seems to be doing the opposite – restricting public transport and promoting private vehicles by making more space and conducive conditions for them.

As per the Urban Emissions website, the exhaust from motor vehicles is the largest contributor to air pollution in the greater Delhi region and is responsible for 30 per cent of PM 2.5 in the air. Biomass fuel and industries come second comprising 20 per cent, while dust, diesel generator sets and open waste burning come in third.

Therefore, Delhi needs a comprehensive approach in tackling air pollution and the way to do it would be the Union government taking lead in bringing the states together to develop a slew of measures that are implemented all year round. The Delhi government should immediately start augmenting public transport in the city by adding more buses, to start with, and should look towards taxing polluting vehicles in a more stringent manner, along with developing low emission zones.

Delhi’s air pollution crisis can only be solved through continuous action, both with strict monitoring and control through enforcement. If we don’t act now, winter will come, just as every year. And we would be discussing the same issue next winter, only with a million fewer Indians.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

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Amit Bhatt Amit Bhatt @amitbhatt4u

The writer is head of transport at WRI India - EMBARQ.

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