In a recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO), it was found that of the 10 most-polluted cities in the world, nine spots were occupied, ignominiously, by Indian cities. Topping the list was Kanpur while Delhi ranked sixth.
Delhi’s position in the list does not come as a surprise. Only last year, Delhi was in the news, globally, when a heavy sheath of smog interrupted a cricket match between India and Sri Lanka and led some Sri Lankan players vomit on field. And we have now come to dread the winter months in Delhi when it becomes a city straight out of the raw pages of dystopia created by Cormac McCarthy – besieged with high levels of toxic pollution, a spike in respiratory diseases, burning eyes and itching throats compounded by a general sense of helplessness.
A typical adult takes around 20,000 breaths per day. For someone living in Delhi, those 20,000 breaths include the equivalent of around 20 grains of table salt worth of particulate matter deposited in their lungs each day.
Last year, as is everyone’s wont, the prejudiced fourth estate, ill-informed courts, a super quango with no accountability to the public and an increasingly shrill militia of social media trolls, had, predictably, laid into Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal for allegedly sitting on his hands and not doing enough to curb local sources of pollution. But perhaps he was the only political leader who was completely seized of the issue, evidenced in the “green Budget” that his government presented this year, and was proactively trying to find solutions to the crisis, even crossing the artificial political divide by reaching out to neighbouring CMs of Haryana and Punjab to build political consensus on this problem.
So, the key question here is: Who or what is really responsible for this air pollution problem in Delhi?
The main culprit
During winters, stubble-burning in the Indo-Gangetic Plain is the main cause of Delhi’s misery. Between November 1 and 8, last year, the air quality (AQ) levels in Delhi had spiked suddenly from 200µg/m3 to reach the hazardous levels of 600-900µg/m3 and then on November 8 witnessed a rapid decline from 640 µg/m3 to 248 µg/m3 on the morning of November 11 – evidence enough that during the period of extreme pollution, there were extramural sources which contributed to Delhi’s pollution and not Delhi’s local pollution sources.
This source is the trenchant stubble-burning in the Indo-Gangetic Plain.
According to a policy paper published by the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS), the rice-wheat cropping system (RWCS) in north-western states produces about 34 million tonnes of rice residues of which the state of Punjab alone contributes about 65 per cent. Harvesting of rice using combine harvesters leaves behind residue, which is disposed of by farmers by burning it as utilisation of the residue in the short window of 10-20 days before planting of wheat crop is time-consuming and not cost-effective.
Estimates indicate that up to 80 per cent of rice residue is burnt by farmers in Punjab. According to another study conducted by the Punjab Pollution Control Board in 2015, it was found that land area equal to 18,000sqkm is set on fire to burn the stubble.
This area is equivalent to the area of 12 Delhis, that is, almost 12 Delhis are set on fire every year.
The smoke emitted due to this burning of farm stubble is carried towards Delhi by upper layer south easterly winds where it meets the moisture-laden winds from the west, and this combined with a zone of windless conditions and high pressure makes the toxic pollutants hover over Delhi perilously during this time. What’s more, the noxious fumes rising from the farms of Punjab cross the border into Lahore and West Punjab, too.
A hobbled fight
The fight against local sources of pollution has been hobbled by multiplicity of authorities. As per a study, the most definitive on air pollution in Delhi, by IIT Kanpur, the top contributor to the PM10 and PM2.5 emissions is dust — constituting 56 per cent and 38 per cent of the pollution load respectively. To this end, Kejriwal had, in 2016, constituted an inter-ministerial task force of a group of ministers (GoM) which was tasked with finding scientific and viable solutions to control the menace of dust pollution in Delhi. The GoM prepared detailed reports on different sources of pollution, possible solutions and delineated the relevant stakeholders involved which ranged from MCD to DDA to DPCC to the central government.
The BJP-led MCD, despite being notified of the fact that waste burning and landfill burning are the two major sources of dust pollution in Delhi, has been extremely obstinate in mending its ways. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) has refused to take any cognisance of the solutions offered. The central government ministries are dancing to their own tunes.
And the DPCC, which comes under the Delhi government, is suffering from a shortfall of inspectors who inspect dust-spewing construction sites, and scientists who work on improving the internal capacity of the organisation, because the lieutenant governor (L-G) has impinged on the constitutional rights of a democratically elected government and taken away from it the mandate to fill up vacancies.
He, just like Calpurnia, has appropriated a task which he has been unable to do justice to.
The best bet — Delhi Metro
The national capital’s best bet against pollution – Delhi Metro – has been derailed by incessant fare hikes.
As per the study by IIT Kanpur, vehicular pollution accounts for about 10 per cent of the PM10 pollution load and about 20 per cent of the PM2.5 pollution load, considerably dwarfed by the main source of local pollution in Delhi – road dust. So, to set the record straight, reforming the public transportation system of Delhi will only help us achieve small gains in the fight with air pollution.
The real enemy is dust pollution. However, this is not to say that fully integrated mobility management paraphernalia is not a sine qua non for an urban city like Delhi. It unequivocally is.
And the most powerful armament in this fight with air pollution is the Delhi Metro. Or it was. Delhi Metro had started its services in 2005, through the Shahdara to Tis Hazari line, and has since become the aorta of Delhi’s working class. Cheap fare, air-conditioning, comfort, efficiency and egalitarianism which breaks class boundaries, have been the hallmarks of the Delhi Metro.
A report by the Boston Consulting Group states that since its inception, the Delhi Metro has succeeded in reducing the amount of road traffic and congestion in the city. In 2014, 12 years after the first line was opened, it was estimated that the Delhi Metro had kept 2,30,000 vehicles off the road, resulting in the saving of roughly Rs 104 billion worth of fuel. Delhi Metro was clearly a major proponent in Delhi’s arsenal to fight pollution.
However, this was not to be. The DMRC and the BJP-led central government, in an unprecedented move, affected two back-to-back fare hikes, thus breaking the back of the common man. An RTI queryrevealed that Delhi Metro had lost over three lakh commuters a day after this steep fare hike came into effect.
Delhi Metro has now transmogrified into a pitiful contraption that has pushed the working class towards using private vehicles and fails to serve its purpose of providing affordable public transport.
Centre should shoulder maximum blame
Up until last year’s pollution crisis in Delhi, the BJP-led central government had sat on its hands for almost three years and had delayed taking any meaningful action to curb this annual problem.
The government’s real motivations were political, not procedural. It was nervous about proposing any measures that would alienate a section of society and decimate its vote-bank.
After much outcry, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) came up with the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), which was unveiled for public comments in April 2018. However the plan is riddled with multiple and glaring infirmities:
(a) It does not set targets to reduce emissions.
(b) It fails to define the role of the Centre as one of an arbiter and coordinator between multiple states which usually squabble with one another.
(c) It lacks proper region specific measures to be taken to check pollution and is mainly limited to strengthening monitoring stations network. For the Indo-Gangetic Plain, there is no specific direction on curbing emissions.
The political blame game played out in the media is disheartening at best and tragic at worst. The urgent need of the hour is a united effort to solve the public health and environmental emergency that is air pollution in Delhi.