TO APPRECIATE HOW ACTIONS THAT would once have been thought unimaginable can become a default response, you only have to look at how vociferous the Supreme Court (SC) has lately been about a ‘lockdown’ even though it has nothing to do with a virus. Delhi is now in the middle of its annual air pollution crisis. In 2016, when the crisis peaked, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which rules the state, came out with a plan that only vehicles with odd or even number plates would run on any day. They enforced it, immediately added exceptions, like women being allowed with both kinds of number plates, which diluted it from the start. But even if it had been rigorously enforced, the end result probably would have been the same—the air quality registered marginal improvement at most. The experiment hasn’t been tested this year but the SC has now gone one up on it. As the Times of India reported: “The Supreme Court of India on Saturday took a serious view of the severe air pollution engulfing Delhi-NCR and told the Centre to consider declaring a two-day lockdown to curb the pollution… “Air pollution is a serious situation,” Chief Justice noted while hearing a petition on air pollution in Delhi. “Tell us how we can reduce AQI from 500 at least by 200 points. Take some urgent measures. Can you think of two days lockdown or something? How can people live?” the CJI-led bench said.”
Delhi’s issue with its air is something of a conundrum. For some time now in the new millennium, like the monsoon, the smog arrives without fail and with the certainty that on some days there will be a flood. But it has been hard to pinpoint just why the flood happens. Firecrackers on Diwali contribute. Stubble burning from neighbouring states has been thought to be a major culprit. Vehicular traffic and construction make a big impact, so do polluting industries. Then there is the fact that Delhi is situated right in the middle of other bigger states which all have pollution issues, especially Uttar Pradesh (UP). Will a lockdown work? If it is only for two days, will it have any sustainable impact? Delhi’s main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in fact, demanded a week of total lockdown. Would seven days be better than two? But then, who compensates all those who lose their livelihood? Already, with construction activities shut down citing pollution, workers are dealing with both pollution and penury. The poorest bear the biggest toll of blanket bans as the Covid lockdown demonstrated. After a couple of days, the SC used another terminology made popular by the pandemic—“work from home”. It ordered an emergency meeting to be called by the Centre to decide on immediate steps to address the issue and also added: “We direct the Centre and States of NCR region to consider introducing work from home in the meantime.” Again, a measure that affects different classes in different ways.
India is in a league of its own. Earlier this month, Delhi’s Janpath area recorded a pm2.5 reading of 655—43 times above WHO’s safe level. This week, there were areas where it was still hovering above 400
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But if history is any indication, nothing much will change because the sense of doom is transient and so is the response to it. Air pollution is only an issue when it can be felt. Soon, it will lessen and then there will be no desperation to address it. And even if there was urgency, it is hard to see how it could be solved. Any measure comes at an economic cost. Also, most solutions just transfer the problem elsewhere. If you removed polluting industries from Delhi, they would pollute wherever else they are relocated. How do you reduce vehicles coming into the state or prevent residents from buying new ones? The emphasis on only Delhi’s air pollution is also a reason for the solution to be elusive. Because air moves and it does not recognise borders.
The World Health Organization (WHO) periodically comes out with guidelines on what makes for air pollution and the danger posed by it. It estimates air pollution to kill seven million people every year. The agency specifies a minimum air quality beyond which there would be health implications. The pollutants are broadly six—“particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide.” Of these, PM2.5 is considered the most dangerous. These are particles less than 2.5 micrometres, suspended in the air. The US Environmental Protection Agency asks you to imagine their size thus: “Think about a single hair from your head. The average human hair is about 70 micrometers in diameter—making it 30 times larger than the largest fine particle.” These particles can get in lungs and blood on breathing, triggering a variety of short-term and long-term issues, from asthma to cancer to heart disease. Recently, WHO came out with an update on its air quality guidelines after 2005. In the 16 years, WHO found out that the quantity of pollutants needed to damage health was much less that what they had earlier estimated. In 2005, the PM2.5 level had to be less than 25 as a daily average for the air to be considered safe, but now it was brought down to 15. Startlingly, more than 90 per cent of the world was living above these levels. Even so, India was in a league of its own.
Early this month, Delhi’s Janpath area recorded a PM2.5 reading of 655—43 times above the safe level. This week, there were areas where it was still hovering above 400. The University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute has developed an Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) and on its website, it tells you how much more an average person would live if the place he was residing in met the WHO air quality guidelines. A Delhiite would be able to add 9.7 years to his life if the air he was breathing were clean. It is the same story across the country, just the number of years would change somewhat. An average Indian could live 5.9 years more if all of India had good air. There is not a single place in India where WHO standards are met. The air quality that the Indian Government has decided is good is much below the WHO level, but even by that standard 94 per cent Indians still do not get it. The AQLI website says about India: “A quarter of India’s population is exposed to pollution levels not seen in any other country, with 248 million residents of northern India on track to lose more than 8 years of life expectancy if pollution levels persist.”
YOU CAN GET an idea of how difficult it is to address air pollution in India by looking at one of the main sources of it, at least in rural areas—the stove used in homes for cooking, or what is usually called the chulha in Hindi. The fuel for the fire comes from cow dung cakes, fuel wood, etcetera, and the smoke it emits is pernicious not just for what it does to the air in general but also because it targets mainly women and children who are indoors when the cooking is being done. By one estimate, more than 100 million Indian households still cook on the chulha. Even in urban areas, it is a feature of households in slums. It spells out the correlation between poverty and pollution. Removing pollution is tied to taking people out of poverty and it is only under this lens that the scale of the problem becomes clear. The Government has ambitious plans to make poor households switch over to LPG, a cleaner fuel, but, in a country of India’s size and poverty, it will not happen overnight.
A Delhiite would be able to add 9.7 years to his life if the air he was breathing were clean. It is the same story across the country, just the number of years would change somewhat. An average Indian could live 5.9 years more if all of India had good air
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Or take another major contributor to air pollution in India—vehicles. It is possible to make manufacturers put in engines which meet the best environmental standards but there are then all the old cars and trucks that continue to spew smoke. These can be phased out, but it will take time. Take another tangential factor related to vehicles that is a big contributor to air pollution—traffic jams. The sooner someone reaches a destination, the less that vehicle will emit. But traffic in any Indian city is only getting worse. Commuting times run into hours on an average. And those are hours in which the car or truck is crawling. Poor road conditions even on highways make vehicles spend more time on the road. To sort out the air pollution issue in India is to also sort out the traffic congestion issue. That is also related to corruption in roads contracts and poor-quality construction. Does anyone expect the traffic problem to be solved anytime soon? Why then would air pollution go down? It is likewise with other factors, such as industries that rely on coal.
Air has numerous pollutants and different sectors are responsible for them. A recent paper by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) that analysed air pollution data has a number of insights. Like the fact that residential pollution (between 27 to 50 per cent) leads in PM2.5 emissions but the power sector is the major reason (44 to 62 per cent) for sulphur dioxide because coal is still the main fuel used by it. Among states, in all the databases CEEW looked at, it found UP to be at the top in PM2.5 pollution. The paper called for an urgent mapping of the problem: who is emitting what and from where. It said: “While action on addressing emissions from sources must continue, India should work towards formalising a regionally representative, periodically updated air pollution emission inventory. Such an emissions inventory is key to help model the dynamic nature of pollution sources and their impact on various areas and assess the implications of new policies and regulations to curtail emissions from specific sources.”
The fundamental reason for the crisis is that India is a fast-developing country and Delhi is its political and economic epicentre for all of the north. The crisis is only felt with the smog. The transition to good air will only be as good as India’s success in reaching full development
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Pinpointing the problem might even not be enough because it keeps changing shape. That is a lesson from the history of Delhi’s air pollution. The World Bank recently came out with a report titled ‘Clearing the Air: A Tale of Three Cities’, which looked at the approaches Delhi, Mexico City and Beijing had taken with regard to air pollution. The Delhi government, it said, was pushed by the judiciary in the 1990s to clean its air and as far back as 1996 came out with plans to tackle pollution. At the time transport was the major contributor to pollution, almost as much as 70 per cent. Over the course of the years, Delhi embarked on wide-ranging measures to tackle emissions from transport. The report says: “The Delhi government plan called for a Mass Rapid Transport System, a highway bypass around Delhi, improved vehicular technology, higher-quality fuels, increased use of CNG, restrictions on excessively polluting vehicles.” Almost all of these have come to pass, like the Metro. A court order also forced largescale conversion of vehicles to CNG in Delhi. “This order initiated one of the most ambitious vehicular fuel-conversion programs globally, and one that was implemented in less than two years by December 2002. With coordinated action from a range of stakeholders—suppliers of CNG, bus manufactures, public vehicle operators—about 10,000 buses converted from diesel to CNG, and approximately 20,000 taxis and 50,000 three wheelers from petrol to CNG, bringing some brief relief to Delhi’s citizens. Air quality, however, steadily declined in the 2000s, building up to a crisis in the late 2010s,” says the report.
The fundamental reason for the crisis is that India is a fast-developing country and Delhi is its political and economic epicentre for all of the north. Development comes with population density and energy consumption, and that leads to air pollution. India is a poor and inefficient country with a very lax ability to enforce laws or implement systems. The crisis is only felt with the smog but pollution is there throughout the year and throughout the land. The transition to good air will only be as good as India’s success in reaching full development and that is decades away. Just as lockdowns did not prevent the pandemic because they cannot be perpetual, a lockdown cannot do much for air pollution either.