Delhi's air pollution: Smoke and mirrors

| Updated on November 22, 2021

Delhi can show the way in implementing solutions for combatting pollution   -  PTI

The debate around Delhi’s air has kicked up its own share of dust. Long-term steps are called for

Come winter, and Delhi’s air quality sinks to abysmal depths. The air quality index (AQI) over the weekend was above 350, with certain pockets showing a reading of 400-500; an AQI of 0-50 is considered good and 50-100 satisfactory. Year after year, the matter draws the attention of the apex court — and for good reasons. The issue of air pollution cannot be seen as one that afflicts Delhi and its surrounding regions alone. It is a lived reality with health and productivity implications for all major cities that are seeing rising populations, growing construction and vehicular pollution, made worse by the dense wintry air. In Delhi and the surrounding cities, stubble burning of paddy, particularly in October and November, adds to this cauldron of smog — although the Centre has submitted to the Supreme Court that this accounts for just 6 per cent of total PM 2.5 (tiny particulate matter) generated in a year in Delhi. The proportion is, however, higher when just the winter emissions are taken into account. These emissions recur in April and May, when wheat stubble is burnt, but do not have the same effect as the air turns lighter. Stubble burning is neither a top cause of noxious air in Delhi, nor is it irrelevant.

An ‘emissions inventory’ drawn up by the Centre’s System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) for 2018-19 (the latest year for which such information is officially available) is revealing. According to the study, transport accounted for 41 per cent of PM 2.5 matter in 2018, and its emissions went up 40 per cent between 2010 and 2018. Industry, which accounts for 18.6 per cent, spewed 48 per cent more PM 2.5 matter into the atmosphere than in 2010. Stubble burning appears to have declined over the years, following judicial and administrative diktats. Setting aside the pandemic effect of 2020, these trends are likely to persist in the absence of effective policy intervention.

Industrial and transport systems need to be looked at, while continuing with efforts to deal with stubble burning — which is also linked to cropping patterns, besides incentives to manage biowaste. Industrial pollution raises the issue of regulatory capacity and use of clean fuels; this holds true for all urban areas. Cleaner mobility can be more easily achieved, and not just because of the EV option. In fact, the shift to BS VI and CNG appears to have been negated by the rise in number of vehicles in Delhi. It is not clear if the odd-even vehicle plan rolled out some years ago by the Delhi government was successful in reducing pollution. Why is such a scheme not being contemplated now? We need to move towards results-based policymaking. Discouraging personal transport, by raising the parking fees in the central business district and focusing on last mile linkages from metro stations, should be a priority. While Delhi’s air pollution woes are acute, it can show the way in implementing solutions.

Published on November 21, 2021

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