Insights into Editorial: Delhi pollution bonanza isn’t due to crackers alone
The air in several places in the country becomes laden with toxic matter around Diwali, almost as a ritual associated with the festival. The toxic cocktail of particulate matter (PM) from car tailpipes and cracker burning casts a dirty haze that is at its most noxious in Delhi.
- Data from the central pollution monitoring agency showed that concentrations of Particulate Matter or PM 10 (coarser pollutants) was over 1,600 micrograms per cubic metre compared to a safe level of 100 at around 2 am. PM 2.5, a standard measure of air quality, was as much as 14 times the safe limit.
Why worry about this?
- The density of some harmful particles and droplets in the air spikes for days after Diwali and can reach up to 42 times the safe limit. These particles can cause respiratory diseases if one is subjected to prolonged exposure to unsafe levels.
- 5 particles and droplets are considered to be the most harmful kind of air pollution because they are fine enough to evade the body’s natural filters, penetrate the lungs and enter the bloodstream.
- Short-term exposure can trigger coughing and eye and throat irritation, while longer term exposure is strongly associated with reduced lung function, heart disease and lung cancer.
India has the world’s highest rate of death from respiratory disease, according to the World Health Organisation, with 159 deaths per 100,000 people in 2012, about five times that of the UK and twice that of China.
- Air quality in the Indian capital is one of the world’s most polluted cities. A 2015 study found about half of Delhi’s 4.4 million schoolchildren had compromised lung capacity and would never completely recover.
- Bad air has also become a permanent winter fixture in Delhi. Last year, the National Air Quality Index ranked the city’s air as “severe” on 20 days in November. Immediately after it was ranked poorly by the air quality index, Delhi received another admonition with the Supreme Court describing the city as a “gas chamber”.
- The rebuke led the Delhi government to ration road space in January and April. For 15 days in these two months, cars and two-wheelers with odd/even numbers ran on alternate days.
What else is to be blamed for Delhi’s worst air quality?
- Air pollution in Delhi’s National Capital Region (NCR) is comprised of a complex mix of pollution from human activities (vehicle emissions, industry, construction and residential fuel burning) as well as natural sources like dust and sea salt.
- The main culprits are rampant and often unregulated construction, the burning of crop stubble in Punjab and Haryana, and the movement of heavy trucks through the city.
- Emissions from pollutants in the Yamuna and the presence of an industrial belt around the city add to the problem.
- The heavy concentration of particulate matter is greatly affected by meteorological conditions –in the winter, cool air causes “inversions” that stagnant the air and trap pollution close to the ground. Air flow patterns from Afghanistan and Pakistan pick up emissions as they move over the densely urbanized regions of Punjab and Haryana where farmers burn the straw in their fields and pull this pollution into Delhi.
- Pre-monsoon dust storms also contribute to air pollution in the region.
- City activities also contribute to the air pollution. The NCR generates 10,000 tons per day of municipal solid waste, much of which is eventually burned, adding particulate pollution to the air and galloping urbanization brings massive construction projects to the area.
- In adddition, Delhi has more than 7.4 million vehicles on it’s roads, with an additional 1,200 added each day and the result is a pollution “hotspot.”
What needs to be done to improve the air quality in Delhi?
- A robust public transport system is one of the bare essentials. Several studies have shown that public transport provides more than 65% of Delhi’s commuting needs but occupies less than five per cent of road space.
- Public transport in itself, however, might not be enough. Economists believe that the middle classes are likely to remain enamoured with cars unless there are strong disincentives to using personal transport. They advocate a combination of pollution taxes, car free days/areas, robust public transport and better urban planning.
- Congestion tax can also be considered. London, Milan, Oslo, Stockholm and Singapore have introduced congestion taxes to curb cars.
- The government, in the spirit of experimentation in which it initially announced the scheme along with a series of other measures, must continue to try to see what improves Delhi’s air quality.
- An odd-even trial in the summer months might be more useful to isolate its impact.
- The government’s proposal to vacuum-clean roads in April is promising, given that the IIT Kanpur study attributed 38% of pollution to road dust.
- The government could also resort on other measures including temporary controls on industry and construction, and banning the use of fireworks.
- In the long run, an essential step would be to draft a new transportation policy, without emphasising only economic aspects as was done earlier.
- Consulting urban planners, logisticians, sociologists, environmentalists, civil society groups including doctors, teachers and lawyers, the police and the military, apart from economists would be essential.
- CSIR’s proposal- mid-week work-from-home– can be a game changer too. According to this formula, instead of commuting to work and school, employees and students could work and study from home for a day.
- Delhi government implemented the Odd-even formula in the National Capital Region on a trial basis. But, there has not been any credible data to support the Delhi government’s claim that the odd-even trial has reduced pollution or improved air quality.
What is expected from governments, both at the central and state?
- The government, in partnership with non-governmental organisations, technical specialists and research organisations, needs to initiate a clean air campaign. This needs to take the form of legislation as well as behaviour-changing approaches.
- Governments, both at the Central and state level, need to reassess their production and consumption of energy and work with partners for a low-carbon future — one that is more efficient, has more natural gas and a growing share of renewable energy, such as solar and bio-gas.
- Public policy must address the various factors that contribute to toxic air, without damaging the core activities that are crucial to economic growth, which requires coordination across sectors, from industry and power to transport and cooking.
- Governments at the Centre and local levels must also demonstrate the political will to tackle what is a catastrophic public health problem. Local governments must clamp down on the specific pollutants that are pushing their respective cities into the danger zone.
By all accounts, the Delhi government is hoping the pollution will dissipate on its own after the festivities recede. But if past years are anything to go by, matters may not improve much. Removing the dirty haze from Delhi’s air requires much more than such sporadic efforts.