Delhi Pollution Needs Political Will Not Piecemeal Responses

Once again, Delhi is almost choking. The 20 million residents of Delhi are suffering from persistent coughs, burning eyes, itchy throats, asthma and bronchitis. And yes, this is simply because they have the temerity to dare breathe the air. As the pollution reached truly hazardous levels, Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal pointed out that Delhi now resembled a gas chamber. What we are witnessing is quite simply a violation of basic rights, a denial of the right to breathe air without dying. No numbers – details of escalating PM2.5, PM10 levels, increasing nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide – are needed to convince us that we indeed have a huge problem on our hands. The mere experience of being out for some hours brings home the toxic truth.

As usual, the powers-that-be have resorted to immediate knee-jerk measures as a response. 1800 schools across Delhi were closed down for some days. All construction activity in Delhi was banned for five days. A 700-megawatt coal-based power plant was shut down. These measures, typically short-term in nature, actually fail to take cognizance of the nature of pollution in Delhi. They fail, in other words, to look at long-term trends in pollution, and consequently at long-term solutions. What is needed right now is political will to implement long-term solutions. It is precisely this will that is missing.

Let us try and understand pollution in Delhi. The pollution from road dust and vehicles, construction and burning of refuse as well as emissions from industrial activity and from DG sets are a year-long phenomenon. These sources of pollution are closely connected to the ‘development’ model in Delhi and the NCR, and to the patterns of urbanisation which have been followed. What complicates matters, and often tips the pollution scale from bad to hazardous, are seasonal sources such as pollution from firecrackers during Diwali and from burning of stubble in agricultural fields in Punjab and Haryana. Every single winter, with monotonous regularity, the pollution takes on ominous proportions as the wintertime meteorological changes exacerbate the problem. The low wind speeds in winter ensure that the dispersal of pollutants does not happen quickly, even as firecrackers and the wintertime tradition burning of agricultural stubble add to the pollution loads. What is needed, therefore, is a mix of solutions, specifically targeting each of these major sources of pollution.

The pollution caused by the Diwali firecrackers are probably the easiest to control, if the political will exists. Bursting firecrackers is hardly an ‘essential’ activity, on which subsistence of the consumers depends. Yes, surely the Indian firecracker industry is enormous, providing employment to many thousands. However, equally surely, such precarious employment in extremely unsafe and horrific work conditions cannot be used as an excuse to not curb the use of firecrackers. As far as firecrackers are concerned, the real reason that governments do not dare to propose a ban is of course religion. In the prevailing situation, where aggressive Hindutva is being harnessed, where citizenship in India is being conflated with Hindu identity, it is hardly surprising that banning/curbing firecrackers is nowhere in the agenda of either the Delhi government or the Modi government.

Similarly, the stubble burning of crops in Haryana and Punjab can be controlled too, if farmers are talked to and provided with alternatives to the practice of burning agricultural wastes (an estimated 32 million tonnes of paddy crop were burnt this year). Such burning releases a mix of aerosols (including black carbon and organic carbon) and gases (carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides), that too at a time when the winter winds prevent their easy dispersal. Burning of stubble in the Indo-Gangetic plains is a somewhat recent phenomenon. Traditionally agricultural remains of the paddy crop used to be ploughed back into the soil. This can be done only if the paddy is cut low down leaving little stubble. When cut close to the ground the stubble does not really compete with the new crop (wheat) which is planted in the next season. Nowadays a variety of reasons have led to this practice of burning: farm revenues are falling and thus farmers cannot afford tractors or labour to chop down crop residue, water is often in short supply and therefore composting the waste is difficult. Such wastes can be sold as biomass and converted into energy, if there were a logistical system in place to collect it. Moreover, the increasing use of chemical pesticides on the paddy crop has also resulted in the high levels of pollution this year. Thus, what is needed is a concerted intervention by the state to ensure that farmers are not forced to burn the agricultural residues – this requires encouragement of organic methods, as well as a rescue of the agricultural sector to increase farm revenues.

In the long-term, however, the only solution is to completely rethink the way Delhi is managed. It will require government to rethink, for instance, the transport infrastructure which millions of people use every day to get to work and back home. The abysmal state of public transport will have to improve. The current fleet of the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC), which is less than 6,000, will have to be expanded to 25,000 if at all the city has to move away from its dependence on private cars. Removing cars from the roads is essential if one is serious about curbing pollution, and this is possible only if there is a robust alternative public transport in place. This was a point made by pollution experts even during the odd-even experiment of the Delhi government. And yet, despite repeated demands to this effect, no government seems interested in addressing the root of the pollution problem in Delhi which is the lack of public transport. As a result, 5.65 lakh new vehicles enter Delhi every day, spewing pollutants and slowly and surely making Delhi the gas chamber that it is.

There are many other solutions too, which need to be implemented. Cleaner fuel in all vehicles has to be ensured, parking fees for cars can be increased to disincentivise car usage, better heating solutions for the poor and homeless have to be worked out. Proper implementation of norms to prevent pollution during construction should be ensured, a move which will also protect construction workers from the constant occupational hazards they are exposed to. Moreover, systematic steps need to be taken to move to cleaner energy generation systems. Unfortunately, what we are seeing is exactly the opposite. Diesel generator sets, which are terribly polluting, continue to operate during power shortages. And all attempts to curb pollution levels during power generation are stymied by powerful lobbies. In December 2015, new emission regulations were passed for all coal-fired thermal power plants, tightening the standards for particulate matter and introducing standards for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury emissions. The deadline for compliance was set for December 2017. Sarath Guttikunda mentions that this would have caused total emissions from power generation to drop by 50% ( However, the Central Electrical Authority is trying to get this deadline extended.

In other words, what we need is political will to institute long-term solutions. But we do not need is cosmetic solutions, aimed at simply conveying that ‘something’ has been done to address the crisis. We do not need solutions such as the Delhi government’s proposal to set up giant air filters to capture pollutants, simply because such solutions do not address the problem with the seriousness it requires. Around 60,000 tonnes of pollutants are generated in Delhi every year (5 million kg per month) – and we would need an estimated 2 million such filters in the city to capture all the pollution! Obviously an impossible task. The fact is that the real solution to pollution is to reduce the source of pollution rather than do the near impossible job of controlling vast amounts of pollutants once they have been generated. And the question ultimately is: how to put pressure on the powers-that-be to actually address these concerns, and not hide behind the shied of piecemeal solutions?