Are Delhi and north India’s pollution problems beyond remedy? The experts say no and believe electric vehicles and tight construction curbs could blow away the toxic air blanketing Delhi and northern India every winter. This writer, looking at the problem’s scale, must confess to pessimism.

Consider the worst air quality six days ago was in Bharatpur, 220 km from Central Delhi. The Air Quality Index in Bharatpur that day was 405 (in the Severe category). In Rajasthan’s Churu it was 404. Take a huge leap to Begusarai in Bihar where the AQI was 378. Swivel in direction to Punjab’s Bathinda where the AQI was 379.

Sitting squat in the middle of all this, like a black hole pumping out dirty air, is the National Capital Region which has a gigantic 46-million population. The NCR’s 1,400sq-km urban sprawl includes satellite cities like Gurugram, Faridabad, Noida, Ghaziabad and Sonipat and even stretches to Meerut, the city where the 1857 Mutiny began, that’s 105 km from Delhi. Already densely populated Delhi is growing at 20 per cent annually.

Last-mile connectivity

There are 37 million vehicles on Delhi’s roads: a mix of high-polluting two-wheelers, automobiles and buses. Unlike Mumbai, where pollution also has become a major problem, Delhi’s citizens don’t want to be forced into the excellent Metro and the buses. The experts say last-mile connectivity could change this. Some 41 per cent of the NCR’s pollution is reckoned to be caused by automobiles, according to the Ministry of Earth Sciences, and another 21 per cent by dust from constant construction, demolition and roadworks.

Some 18 per cent is from small industry — the bigger industrial plants having been pushed out. In November, stubble-burning in Punjab adds to this suffocating mix, contributing 5-35 per cent at peak season. The NCR’s landlocked location means as soon as atmospheric conditions worsen, cancer-causing particles get trapped.

The State government and the Centre are frequently slammed for doing nothing not to solve this dreadful situation. But the opposite is true. Environmentalist Anumita Chowdhury notes “Delhi has shut down all its coal-power plants. It moved its public transport, its local commercial transport to CNG and LNG. It’s put restrictions on truck entry, it’s controlled diesel vehicles and expanded natural gas use.” Plus all older vehicles are off the road after 15 years.

Add to this the fact there are 44 air monitors across Delhi. These transmit live readings to Pune’s Institute of Tropical Meteorology and experts can figure out round-the-clock what’s causing the pollution. But the AQI is still abominable after all these measures which is why this writer tends to lose hope. Chowdhury reckons air quality must improve by a massive 62 per cent to change this situation. She believes an integrated public transport system must be combined with the right conditions for cyclists and walking. She also says pollution has stabilised to some extent but at these choking levels.

Environmentalist Vimlendu Jha says he travels everyday between Gurugram and Delhi and many others do the same. He reckons a superb public transport system must also connect Delhi and all satellite cities. In addition, he believes there must be the strictest construction controls.

But even this isn’t sufficient. Cities like Kanpur and Ludhiana are also in the AQI’s unhealthy category. In the rural areas, there’s no air-quality measurement. “Out of Delhi, nothing works,” says Mohan P George, advisor to the Centre of Science and Environment. Travel east to Patna and the AQI has been severe (301-400) on seven days this month. Most other days have been in the unhealthy category. So, fixing Delhi NCR is a first step but excellent low-emission public transport and other vehicles are needed across all north India.

Electric vehicles are the great future hope. Even they’re not completely emission-free, they’re an improvement on the petrol vehicles we use.

Everyone in Delhi remembers the lockdown when skies turned blue, mainly because almost all vehicles were parked.

So, maybe the smog haze can be dispelled? Beijing cut its average annual fine particulate matter known as PM2.5 to 30 micrograms per cubic metre last year from its worst level of 94.5 in 2013, referred to as China’s year of the “air-pocalypse,” thanks to tree-planting, curbing coal consumption, shutting factories, massive EV use, vehicle emission controls and other steps. (Delhi’s average PM2.5 concentration (known as the silent killer for its contribution to lung cancer and other deaths) was 99.7 in 2022.

It’s going to take a similar Himalayan effort if we want to clean up our worst-polluting cities.

Electric vehicles are the great future hope. Even if they’re not completely emission-free, they’re an improvement on the petrol vehicles we use.