Old Delhi, November 7, 2023 (Photo: Ashish Sharma)
NOVEMBER IS THE MONTH WHEN EVERYONE IN DELHI— FROM the Supreme Court to the Central and state governments and all residents—agree that never again would they allow themselves to live with such polluted air. Banning firecrackers, subsidising farmers in neighbouring states to not burn crop residues, allowing only vehicles with either odd or even number plates to ply on a given day, machines to suck pollutants from the air, and just about everything that an imaginative desperate system can come up with is tried. It is being tried now. It was tried last November too. And you can make a lot of money by betting that next November, nothing will change. Come Diwali, the Air Quality Index (AQI) will go to such dizzying levels that the first world will be shocked and those who live here will once again be gasping.
On Diwali day, the AQI was 218. This was said to be the best in the last eight years. Last year, for instance, it was 312 and a report by the news agency PTI, while giving this salutary news, however also had this paragraph: “Delhi’s air quality improved sharply just ahead of Diwali this year. The improvement can be attributed to intermittent rainfall on Friday and wind speeds favourable for the dispersion of pollutants.” The improvement therefore was probably with some help from nature. Even at 218, the category under which this air comes is “poor”. It doesn’t make the lungs of Delhiites feel much better. In fact, about a week earlier, the average AQI had been as high as 468. Within days after Diwali, now that rain gods had stopped smiling, the AQI dipped to “very poor”, over the 300 mark.
A number of factors come together to create this crisis at this time. The main culprit is said to be the burning of agricultural stubble in neighbouring states like Punjab. It is a difficult cat to bell because farmers are an indigent class. They do so because it is cheap way to discard the stubble. Some also believe it benefits to the soil. Most just don’t have the resources to go for alternatives. Meanwhile, farmers are also a politically sensitive subject. To do anything that adds to the distress of farmers, a real risk of losing votes, in favour of air pollution which costs no votes, is an easy choice for the political class. But to focus only on addressing stubble as the silver bullet solution is also just getting sidetracked to a symptom.
A paper published early this year in the journal Sustainability did a review from 1990 to 2022 of Delhi’s air pollution and attributed the key sources to “vehicle exhaust, road dust, construction dust, cooking and heating, open waste burning, and industries.” But they also crucially added that it was a year-long problem, and not just in the winter. The paper said: “Long-term solutions should be the focus to address this issue, as outlined in the clean air action plans for the city. These solutions include increasing infrastructure for public transportation, walking, and cycling; promoting the use of clean fuels such as LPG and electricity for cooking and heating; enforcing emission standards for industries; improving waste management and reducing open waste burning; and increasing the city’s green cover.” Even though air pollution is always present, it is only in winter that the panic begins because that is when it reaches its peak and cannot be ignored. This phenomenon of only reacting to what can be seen and felt is also the reason why there is no sustained effort to address it. Because once the AQI becomes even a little more respectable, the issue slips out of social consciousness.
It is also counterproductive to be focused on Delhi because it takes away from air pollution being a national issue. There is no part of India that provides good air as per the best standards set by institutions like the World Health Organization. Take Mumbai, for example. For long, it was considered to be immune to pollution because of the sea nearby and the coastal winds taking away the pollutants. Recently, something seems to have shifted with Mumbai maintaining high scores for bad air quality. During winters, AQIs going above 200 is a consistent feature now. In February, in the list of cities with the most pollution by the Swiss air tracking index IQAir, Mumbai even beat Delhi. At present in the same index, Delhi ranks second in the top 10 globally, with Mumbai in fifth place.
The main culprit is said to be the burning of agricultural stubble in neighbouring states like Punjab. It is a difficult cat to bell because farmers are an indigent class. They do so because it is a cheap way to discard the stubble. Some also believe it benefits the soil
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WHILE MUMBAI HAS a large number of vehicles, which, like Delhi, contribute substantially to pollution, what is novel is a construction boom following the Covid lockdowns. Not just new projects, there are a record number of old buildings that are now being redeveloped. In addition, there is the Metro rail project where lines and stations are being constructed almost everywhere. Towards the end of October, alarmed at the pollution levels, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) came out with an extensive list of guidelines to control it. Construction sites were asked to maintain water sprinklers to not let dust into the air, so also sensor-based air pollution monitors and to take immediate action if readings were in excess. Squads were formed and deployed to enforce air pollution mitigation measures and more. It said that there were over 6,000 construction projects ongoing and they would be made to strictly enforce norms to manage dust. The BMC seemed to mean business when it began to send notices to stop work for those who weren’t complying. Emission checks on vehicles were intensified. But it is too early to know whether these measures will have any impact and, chances are, enforcement will become lax once the air becomes somewhat better.
Almost every city in India is a health hazard when it comes to its air. In the IQAir list where Delhi is second currently, Kolkata was ranked fifth. In March this year, when the Centre for Science and Environment looked at PM2.5 (the smallest and most dangerous pollutant) in five major Indian cities other than Delhi and while comparing the winter air with that of the previous three years, they found that Bengaluru and Chennai were worsening the fastest, noting “their current winter air was 15 per cent more polluted than the average of their previous three winters.” They also found some interesting patterns. Delhi, unlike other big cities, had two major peaks in November and January when air quality nosedived to crisis levels. “November is the worst air quality month for Hyderabad and Bengaluru, while for Mumbai and Chennai, it has been January. Kolkata’s worst month is December. Kolkata was the most polluted megacity (excluding Delhi) for the months of November, December and January. In February, Mumbai overtook Kolkata. Winter is a problematic season for all megacities, but the intensity of the problem varies: The days with bad air quality occur in clusters during the winter season in megacities. The clustering of bad air days was longer in Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Hyderabad, but of shorter duration in Bengaluru and Chennai,” the study said.
All this has real consequences, even if most of the year we take the air for granted. The University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute comes out with an Air Quality Life Index annually and it estimates how much of your years have been cut short because of what you breathe. This year’s index says that Indians would live 5.8 years more if the air here was good as per World Health Organization’s standards. Someone in Delhi can live 11.9 years more. They also had this to say: “From 1998 to 2021, average annual particulate pollution increased by 67.7 percent, further reducing average life expectancy by 2.3 years.” Not only are we living less, but we will live even less if things continue as they are. And it is almost inevitable that as India furiously industrialises on its way to becoming a developed nation, there will be more of everything— factories, cars, refineries, etc. It is only once we get established as a wealthy society, as happened in the West, that the air begins to get better. Meanwhile, all countermeasures are like bandages that can address some symptoms but don’t fix the underlying issue. And the underlying issue is even in one sense good. Fast development means people get out of poverty and deprivation sooner. That is a trade-off that air pollution demands. For instance, consider the point of view of the farmer who is being asked not to burn his stubble. He is wondering why he has to pay more for well-off people in far-off cities to live better, while he himself manages to survive on the borderline of poverty.
For long, Mumbai was considered to be immune to pollution because of the sea nearby and the coastal winds taking away the pollutants. Recently, something seems to have shifted with Mumbai maintaining high scores for bad air quality
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In 2019, India came out with a National Clean Air Programme which had ambitious targets to reduce pollutants in more than 100 cities. It has spent thousands of crores so far, but gains have been marginal. However, there has been substantial improvement in mapping the quality of the air by setting up monitoring stations. We have much more knowledge about what is happening and that is at least a beginning in what promises to be a very long grind in getting Indian air back to breathability.