From Breathing Noxious AIR to Clear Blue Skies??
| Dr Arvind Kumar - 06 Nov 2023

By Dr Arvind Kumar

At this time of year like the advent of festival season the annual ritual of Air Pollution also arrives in Delhi. Its air is increasingly becoming more polluted and unbreathable, harming our health, economies and the planet and is a global scale problem and one of the biggest contributors to climate change. South Asia is home to some of the world’s countries most vulnerable to climate change. It is also at the epicenter of ambient air pollution—pollution people are exposed to outside their households. According to the latest World Air Quality Report, 2023, India's capital, Delhi, ranks 4th among the most polluted cities after Chiang Mai (Thailand), Kathmandu (Nepal), and Shenyang (China). Air pollution in the South Asia region is a health hazard and represents the third-highest risk for premature death, as compared to the ninth highest cause in Western Europe. South Asian governments are beginning to realize the benefits of resilience; but to become climate resilient, the region needs to adopt ambitious policies and strengthen planning. Delhi, home to about 33 million people, is regularly ranked the most polluted city in the world. According to this year’s air quality life index, compiled by the University of Chicago’s energy policy institute, the people of Delhi could have their lives shortened by 11.9 years due to the poor air they breathe. The consequences will be long-lasting without efforts to reduce air pollution in the nation of 1.35 billion people. Among the many costs associated with increased mortality and illness caused by air pollutants, the researchers estimate the air pollution-related costs to India’s health care system at nearly $12 billion in 2022.

Aggravated breathing problems, recurring coughs and colds, watery and irritated eyes are some unwanted gifts which Delhites are burdened with. In 2021 alone, India experienced an estimated 1.2 million air pollution-related premature deaths as India’s average particulate matter concentration was 70.3 µg/ m3 – the highest in the world and 7 times the WHO’s guideline of 10 µg/m3. The AQLI by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago shows that air pollution shortens average Indian life expectancy by 5.9 years, relative to what it would be if the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline was met. At the same time, India’s growing economy is driving CO2 emissions, which increased by more than 55% in the last decade, and are expected to rise by 50% to 2040. If you ban private vehicles you need a public transport system to meet demand but sadly we don’t have that system.

How to prevent and mitigate?

The city receives pollution from industrial and agricultural (stubble burning) activities in the neighbouring states of Haryana, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh (UP). In this regard, the draft plan suggests that these states should observe recommendations/prescribed emission standards of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) or the National Capital Region (NCR) Plan, and work together to address the challenge. Similar efforts in the past were mostly ineffective because several pollution emitting entities/activities were not monitored /penalised, and suitable alternatives were not provided. Moreover, difficulties were faced in ensuring participation of states (which are governed by different political parties) in regional projects that cut across state boundaries, such as protection of river water and creation of a green buffer.

Delhi still has several polluting industries, despite a ban. These need to be relocated to appropriate locations. In addition, the draft plan calls for establishment of non-polluting economic activities, such as cyber hubs, high-tech robotics and electronics, knowledge and innovation, R&D, hospitality, urban farming, horticulture, etc. In dense, congested parts of the Old City, the administration has not been successful in monitoring the growth and presence of various polluting economic activities. These need to be tracked with greater efficiency. Further, suitable alternatives/guidance would have to be provided to workers engaged in these activities, if their jobs are adversely affected by the government’s policy. The most crucial reasons for the alarming levels of air pollution in Delhi include the city’s landlocked geographical location, crop burning in neighbouring states (Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan), vehicular emissions, industrial pollution, and large-scale construction activities. Compounding the problem are seasonal emissions from dust storms, forest fires, and open field fires during harvest season.

There are several policies and laws already in place but that are not being met on the ground. Firework bans have not stopped people setting off fireworks. Vehicle emissions test centers are notorious for giving fraudulent compliance certificates. Construction companies do not suppress dust as required by using strategies such as setting up barriers, covering debris, or sprinkling building materials with water for storage and transport. Uncontrolled fires at landfills are also a result of policies being ignored. Garbage dumps in Delhi have officially been shut since 2009 because they are already at capacity, but around 80% of the 10,000 metric tons of waste the city generates every day is still dumped in these sites. The buildup of methane from the organic waste deep in the landfill leads to large spontaneous fires that can last for days because they are hard to douse.

Way Forward

The issue of pollution in Delhi requires an integrated holistic approach addressing the multi sectoral pollution emission. Since the responsibility for managing the issue lies with different city government departments, such as environment, water, industry, urban development, transport, energy, sanitation, etc., as well as the citizens, better coordination of actions between the different actors is required. There should be a dedicated air quality forecasting cell to facilitate roll out of preventive measures. Equally important is to scale up collaborations with other cities and the private sector. Enforcement of rules and regulations is the second aspect to be strengthened. The government should realise that by overlooking this matter, there has been enormous loss of human and natural resources. Polluters pay principle should be strictly adhered on. More awareness needs to be created among policymakers and the general public about the slow but substantial impact of ambient particulate matter and household air pollution. Instead of Band-Aid solutions we should search for permanent or sustainable solutions. Antipollution measures have so far fizzled, but solutions are simple and obvious, experts say, and much boils down to political and social will. It’s still not a hopeless situation. Models clearly show that you can achieve ambient air-quality standards in Delhi if you put the right technology intent and the right management in place otherwise the citizens will be forced to breathe the noxious clouds of gas around them.

*Editor, Focus Global Reporter


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