For the last one week New Delhi, India’s national capital, has been experiencing an environment event of almost apocalyptic proportions. Air pollution, which always spikes following the orgy of exploding firecrackers during Diwali, has ballooned into a spectacularly dense miasma this time. Helped by weather conditions, it has stayed on — enveloping the city in a toxic, sunless haze that makes your eyes burn, your throat itch and creeps into your lungs as you breathe.
All the air quality metrics are flashing red. The city’s PM 2.5 — the 24-hour average concentration of tiny particulate matter (PM) less than 2.5 micrometres — has ranged between 400 to 700 since last week. This is five to 10 times higher than the safe limit. The foul air, laden with pollutants and carcinogens, is disastrous for those with lung and respiratory diseases. Even healthy people, especially children and the elderly, run the risk of developing respiratory problems. Experts say inhaling Delhi’s air is tantamount to smoking 20-odd cigarettes a day.
On Sunday the government of the city-state of Delhi, led by chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, finally announced a slew of measures to try and mitigate the poison in the air. These include a five-day ban on all demolition and construction, a 10-day shutdown of a thermal power plant, a ban on the burning of municipal waste, a temporary ban on diesel generators and so on. Schools were also asked to close for three days to keep children indoors.
In the midst of this severe public health crisis, the blame game rages on. Kejriwal says that air pollution always peaks at this time of the year because the farmers in neighbouring states (ruled by his political opponents, the BJP and its allies) burn crop stubbles. That’s not the primary cause of Delhi’s catastrophic air quality, counters the Narendra Modi-led BJP government at the Centre.
To be sure, the Delhi government has done very little to curb air pollution in the close to two years that it has been in power. What makes the apathy even more stunning is the fact that this is a “known known” — the capital’s air quality index has been rising to alarming levels every winter in recent years. Yet, instead of launching a well thought out, long-term programme to clean up the air, the government responds with ad hoc measures each time a killer smog comes calling. Once the emergency recedes, so do the proposed steps to cut air pollution.
In a knee-jerk reaction to the crisis last December, the Delhi government introduced a fortnight-long scheme during which cars with odd and even numbers plied on alternate days, thereby reducing vehicular pollution to some extent. It also declared that Delhi’s public transport system would be beefed up to encourage commuters to leave their cars at home, and that roads would be regularly vacuumed to control dust.
But these have remained empty promises. In March this year, Delhi’s deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia announced that the government was planning to buy 3,000 new buses. There are no signs of the buses as yet. In July, the National Green Tribunal ordered diesel vehicles that were more than 10 years old to go off the roads. This too has not been implemented.
Again, given that the burning of crop residue in the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana befouls Delhi’s air, it is astonishing that neither Kejriwal nor the Central government has lobbied — politically or otherwise — to incentivise farmers to employ other means of waste disposal.
If it had the will, the government could push through a number of measures to improve air quality. These include augmenting the public transportation system so that there are fewer private vehicles on the roads (Delhi has a staggering 8.8 million vehicles polluting its air); penalising households with multiple cars; raising emission standards of autos to the level of those in the West without delay; ensuring strict adherence to the emission norms of coal-fired power plants; penalising polluting industries; focussing on renewable energy; discouraging the use of coal or wood fires for cooking or heating, and many others.
Moreover, it needs to raise public awareness about the terrible health implications of air pollution. That means not being in denial or temporary amnesia about this ticking time bomb, but issuing regular advisories on air quality and educating people about the ways in which they too can fight the scourge. For everybody is a stakeholder when it comes to the air we breathe.
In recent years cities like Beijing and Mexico, which are among the most polluted in the world, have taken a number of steps to improve their air quality. Delhi can do the same. But for that to happen both the central government and the Delhi administration have to act in concert and put in place a long-term plan to battle the crisis.
More so because it is not only Delhi that chokes on its air. Much of north India, including cities like Agra, Lucknow and Varanasi, are also reporting extremely hazardous air quality indices. In October this year, the Indian government ratified the Paris agreement on climate change that pledges to limit greenhouse emissions. The government would do well to remember that it also means addressing the looming environmental disaster in its own backyard.
Shuma Raha is a senior journalist based in Delhi.