Deteriorating air quality: No half measures to tackle Delhi pollution

Strengthening public transport such as Metro rail, promoting electric vehicles, strict monitoring of construction and finding ways to use crop stubble rather than burning are some of the measures that can be taken to curb Delhi-NCR pollution that has increased to alarming levels

Written by P S N Rao | Published:November 11, 2017 2:59 am
Delhi pollution, Delhi smog, Why is Delhi polluted, crop burning A blanket of smog shrouds the Jama Masjid area in New Delhi on Thursday. (Express Photo/Neeraj Priyadarshi)

Delhi was once a beautiful city. The old settlement of Shahjahanabad with its water channels, havelis, shaded courtyards and river breeze made it a very habitable city.

When the British came in and added the Civil Lines, things were still good and living in the city was a pleasure. Later, when the New Delhi Capital Complex was planned by Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, much care was taken to ensure clean and green living.

Even the early developments by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) ensured one could live a good life here. However, with the passage of time, things have started deteriorating.

The principles of good urban planning have been replaced with knee-jerk responses, short-term firefighting solutions and political expediency for overnight results. The consequence is the piling up of a series of decisions which have all accumulated and throw up on our faces today.

Factors for Delhi’s pollution

Geographical limitations: Unlike coastal areas where there is adequate sea and land breeze due to the alternate cycle of heating and cooling of land and water, Delhi’s location leaves little breeze for it. Therefore, any amount of pollutants generated are not moved away. Further, due to the phenomenon of atmospheric inversion, pollutants tend to stay and not disperse. This is a natural limitation we have to live with, and accordingly, ensure that little or no pollutants are emitted into the air.

Huge vehicular emissions: Delhi has the distinction of having more number of registered motor vehicles than Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata put together. This is a cause for chemical air pollution all round the year.

Unrestricted crop burning: The farmers in the surrounding states of Delhi, particularly Punjab and Haryana, burn the crop stubble after the harvest season. This leads to emission of a huge amount of carbon monoxide in the air, and the prevailing winds push the pollutants to Delhi. This becomes a serious problem when there is still air, and humidity only adds to the problem in winters.

Large quantities of construction dust: Delhi-NCR is a zone where enormous amount of construction is taking place: residential and commercial apartments, flyovers, metro rail works, roads, etc. All these contribute tremendously to suspended particulate matter (SPM) in the air and contribute significantly to air pollution.

Lack of adequate ground cover: Large parts of Delhi, including the surrounding region lack vegetative ground cover. As a result, exposed earth gets into the air as dust. Summers also bring in a lot of SPM on account of dust storms, where the matter brought it stays put. Further, even the roads and footpaths are laden with a lot of particulate matter and loose earth. Construction debris also lies around, exposed in various parts of the city .

Industrial emissions: Surrounding industrial areas ( Noida, Greater Noida, Faridabad, Bawal, Bhiwadi, Manesar, etc) also pollute the air in their own ways, and the emissions also get trapped in the air. While there are standards set for air pollution control in the organised sector, many informal and illegal units pollute the air unhindered on account of lackadaisical governance structures and systems.

Exposure to chemicals

Public health casualty: Little needs to be said on the extent of public health casualties when air pollution goes beyond the permissible limits. Difficulty in breathing is the starting point. Continued exposure to chemicals leads to reactions in the human body which are difficult to repair. Infants, asthma patients, adults and the elderly alike, everybody is susceptible to discomfort and disease. All this could lead to serious bronchial fatalities with prolonged exposure.

Loss of productivity: Poor health obviously leads to loss of productivity. Flights are cancelled, trains are delayed and road accidents increase due to decreased visibility. Schools are shut, leading to loss of teaching hours. There is an overall loss of productivity at various levels and this is a chain effect.

Measures that can be taken

It is not that the governments at various levels are not seized of the situation. The introduction of the Delhi Metro Rail system has taken off a lot of pressure from the combustion engine-based mass transport systems, such as buses and cars. Currently, millions of commuters use Metro. The introduction of low-sulphur diesel, introduction of CNG, shifting out of polluting industries, shutting down the thermal power plants and stone crushers are also some of the measures taken in the past to tackle the situation. However, it appears that, with the Air Quality Index hovering around the 500 danger mark every winter, more needs to be done.

While there are many short-term measures to tackle the situation like wearing masks, odd-even system for vehicles, increasing the Metro frequency, adding more buses, stopping construction for a few days, closing schools for a few days and so on, serious long-term measures are imperative. We need to recognise that Delhi and NCR are different as compared to other parts of the country. Therefore, solutions need to be tailor-made.

Serious efforts need to be made to cover as many segments of the Delhi-NCR as possible with the Metro Rail network, so that motor vehicle movements are discouraged. Universalisation of Metro network in the entire NCR is urgently needed. Along with this, parking fees also need to be increased manifold, in a graded manner.

We need to seriously switch over to electric cars. This technology has developed rapidly and in recent times, many countries have started to gradually switch over. In Delhi-NCR, to begin with, we need to have arrangements so that all taxis, including cab aggregator companies, need to mandatorily ply only electric cars. Similarly, all government office cars should also switch over to electric cars immediately.

Strict monitoring of air polluters such as industries, stone crushers, construction industry, should be done with protocols, procedures and practices implemented. Development does require a lot of industry and construction to happen. For example, the Metro alone would require a lot of construction to happen. However, if codes and practices are strictly implemented, the air could be that much cleaner.

A coordinated governance effort is needed. Without law, punishments and good governance, it would be difficult to make any headway. Here, many departments, organisations, ministries, state governments and the Central government need to come together to chalk out a coordinated strategy to tackle the problem. Both short-term as well as long-term measures are required.

Finally, the practice of crop stubble burning needs to be seriously looked at and a solution worked out. Crop stubble is biomass which can be used for a variety of purposes and we need to encourage research, innovation and adaptive use of this biomass, rather than simply burning.

The writer, an urban development specialist, is currently a senior professor at School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi

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