Airpocalypse: Band-aid solutions won't fix Delhi's grave air problem

People commute during the foggy in Moradabad district on Tuesday. (Photo: PTI)
Belgium’s King Philippe and Queen Mathilde arrived in Delhi on Tuesday the 7th of November to what was supposed to be a grand welcome. President Kovind and Prime Minister Modi were among the dignitaries welcoming the royal guests on Raisina Hill. However, air pollution levels were so grave that it looked like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie. In many parts of Delhi, the Air Quality Index had reached 999, which is the maximum possible it is designed to measure. 

Even though air pollution kills lakhs of Indians every year, it has been relegated to a non-issue in a country with a million social, economic and political problems. Foreign missions in India have long recognised this problem – their diplomats consider Delhi a hazardous posting akin to war-torn countries. They receive monetary benefits to be posted here and often do not bring along their families. 

We Indians on the other hand do not realise that the heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, respiratory infections, and trachea, bronchus and lung cancer that we suffer from and hear about are frequently triggered by air pollution. While there are several structural solutions to the crisis, our attention has focussed on public events such as odd-even traffic rules in Delhi or firecracker bans on Diwali. 

It is not surprising that this band aid approach has only had a marginal impact. The source apportionment study by IIT Kanpur in 2015 revealed that 38% of Delhi’s particulate air pollution originated from road dust, 20% from vehicles, 12% from domestic sources such as cooking, and 15% from industries. An older source apportionment study by NEERI Nagpur for the Central Pollution Control Board revealed that 52% of Delhi’s air pollution is from road dust, 22% from industries, 7% from vehicles and 18% from biomass burning. 

This variation is neither surprising nor important. Source apportionment studies can give varying results depending on the nature of economic activity and methodology chosen while conducting the study. What is more important is how we react to what we already know – regardless of how imperfect the information may be. 

Ideally, the government should be taking a lead in safeguarding public health, but unfortunately, it has often erred on the side of caution rather than decisive action. The void has at times been filled by judicial activism, such as Delhi’s switch from diesel to CNG several years ago, or the recent firecracker ban. Further, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned diesel vehicles in the National Capital Region that are more than 10 years old, but the government is currently resisting these efforts

The NGT also banned crop burning and imposed fines, but the enforcement leaves much to be desired, which is why smoke originating from these farmlands continues to contribute to crisis-level air pollution in the northern part of the country. After all, farmers happen to be an important political constituency, and fines or other action against them cannot be seen to be too harsh.

Short-term solutions to this crisis are not exactly unknown to the government. Insofar as agricultural residues are concerned, the solutions include a mechanism for the government to buy agricultural residues so farmers are compensated for selling it instead of burning it. Further, public investment must be made into machinery that can uproot crop residues that can be rented by farmers. They are currently too expensive for individual farmers given the small size of land holdings.

When it comes to transport and road dust, roads in Indian cities need to be covered from edge to edge so that the minimum possible road dust is kicked into the air by passing vehicles. Only implementing this will make attempts at vacuum cleaning of roads a practical maintenance solution. 

Further, trucks that do not have to deliver goods to an address within Delhi should not be allowed to enter the city only to use it as thoroughfare. After all, of the transport sector pollution, 48% of it is from trucks. Petrol and diesel cars that were targeted in the odd-even policy contribute to only 3% of the transport sector air pollution. 

Another concerning fact has been that the number of city buses in Delhi fell from 6,204 in 2011 to 3,951 today. Not only must the government expand its bus fleet, it must acquire electric buses and explore trolleybus corridors to prevent tailpipe emissions in the city. Only with adequate public transport will measures such as the increase in parking fee and congestion pricing be practical and implementable.  

When it comes to industries, the Indian government may not have the courage to initiate sweeping reforms like China does, which includes the moving of entire industrial clusters away from cities. However, what the Indian government must do is shut down those industrial units that are flouting emission norms. In the longer run, India must also make a switch from coal fired power plants to renewables, nuclear energy and the much cleaner natural gas. The divestment from coal should be the top priority of the energy ministries. 

But I repeat – these facts are not unknown to the government. The government has itself identified the causes and a few solutions. What is lacking is the histrionics that is needed to put this crisis at the top of the policy agenda. 

Delhiites must, at the very least, refuse to run the annual half-marathon that is due in a few days. The head of the department of chest surgery at the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in Delhi states that running a marathon in these conditions can deposit approximately two tablespoons of toxic ash in your lungs.

When Singapore had its air pollution crises in the past, it shut down schools and offices. That may be harder to imagine in a developing country like India, but the message must go out that it is an issue we care deeply about. If schools need to be shut and exams be postponed, they must. After all, studies show that half of Delhi’s school children are growing up with irreversible lung damage

While it is true that these noises about air pollution are coming from the elite, the fact is that that they can lock themselves away in houses with air filters, while it is the poor who suffer the most. Most of the 10,000 to 30,000 people who die premature deaths annually due to air pollution in Delhi are poor. 

The firecracker ban may have been desirable, but it is not nearly enough to make a dent in this public health emergency. We need an ‘all of the above’ approach, and we need it starting yesterday. 

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

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