As the annual exercise of kicking our environment in the nards came to an end last Sunday, plumes of smoke from its aftermath have transformed Delhi-NCR into a gas chamber of sorts. The festival of lights is synonymous with the usual bang, but is it worth the buck when we are left to fend for ourselves against the long-lasting after-effects of air pollution? The Arvind Kejriwal government had so far pulled everything out of its hat, minus the fluffy white bunny. The much trumpeted Odd-Even scheme saw Delhi rise to the challenge of relying on the public transport system, but the results were underwhelming. The usually clogged roads saw smooth movement of traffic during those few weeks and that is that. The pollution levels remained the same and, in fact, spiked to hazardous levels despite most of the private vehicles staying off the roads.
On Tuesday, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia said that the government will tackle the problem on war footing, and announced a slew of measures to curb air pollution. Saying that dust is a major contributor to air pollution, Sisodia said that various dust control measures such as vacuum cleaning of roads, sprinkling water through jets, and installation of air purifiers and mist fountains will be undertaken.
But is the government doing enough? Take the Chinese for example. After years of rapid economic expansion that saw buildings pierce the sky and vehicles get wider than roads would permit, China’s capital city Beijing began to choke on the dust from construction sites and car exhausts. Its skies turned a soupy grey, and its residents became faceless as they hid behind masks designed for cosmonauts.
China did wake up from its toxic fumes-induced slumber in 2013 and came up with a warning system on the lines of air quality index. Its new colour-coded index put state authorities on alert, where a string of safety measures would come into effect to stop the air quality from further deterioration. In 2015, when the state was put on its highest alert (RED), schools were shut down, construction activity came to a grinding halt, and vehicles stayed off roads based on their registration numbers (odd or even).
Where Delhi fails is that it doesn’t have an efficient system in place to check the rising levels of pollution. China’s solutions might be stop-gap, but they have been advocating sustainable growth over hybrid methods. What comes across as surprising is that the particulate matter in Beijing in December, 2015 slowly edged towards the 300 limit, which is considered 40 times above the WHO guideline, and it was on its highest alert. On Wednesday, two days after Diwali, the particulate matter in Delhi raised to an astonishing 743 on the air quality index. No advisories, advising residents to stay indoors, were issued by the Delhi government so far on the alarming levels of pollution. Schools and offices reopened on Wednesday, after a long weekend, and have been functioning normally. Air pollution is one thing that the Delhi government cannot shift the blame to the Centre. The problem needs immediate attention. The problem needs urgent attention as winter is coming and the watch must resume.