Despite a year of increasing public concern and alarm over the costs of rising air pollution levels in Delhi, little appears to have changed. Yesterday, the Delhi High Court expressed displeasure over “unchecked rising pollution” in the city. On Wednesday, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) reprimanded the Delhi government for failing to control pollution levels, directing it to issue advisories that would warn children and the elderly — two groups most at risk from inhaling toxic air — to stay at home. Meanwhile, Norway is reportedly considering classifying the capital as a “hardship” posting because of deteriorating air quality, and an international school has cancelled all outdoor activities until pollution levels decrease. This comes even as the Central Pollution Control Board, which measures air quality, classified Delhi’s air as “hazardous” this past week.
Yet, the government has not treated it as the public health emergency it so clearly is. As a first, immediate step, the government should, as the NGT recommended, issue warnings and make information on the most critically affected areas widely available. Though stay-at-home days may not prove practical in the long term, given the frequency with which they might occur, people ought to be able to make an informed choice. Second, officials should educate the public about masks that filter out at least some particulate matter, and even subsidise them to encourage adoption. Then, the government needs to target the different sources of pollution, instead of focusing interventions on, say, vehicular sources. For instance, the burning of garbage is a major contributor to Delhi’s dirty air. But because of the absence of a centralised system of landfills or garbage treatment, and a lack of incentives to hunt for other solutions, waste continues to be burnt, spewing harmful toxins. At the same time, as the NGT noted, the use of diesel generators, cars and trucks must be actively discouraged, perhaps by imposing a tax. Beijing, another city with alarming air pollution, bans drivers of diesel cars from obtaining licence plates.
At a time when the Centre has launched an ambitious “smart cities” programme, it is clear that there is much work to be done to ensure that our existing cities are liveable. Delhi is merely the most visible and high-profile example of how creaky urban infrastructure in India is. The Max Planck Institute estimates that, by 2025, more than 30,000 Delhi residents will die each year from air pollution, with Kolkata and Mumbai
accounting for another 40,000. The WHO’s list of the 20 most polluted cities is dominated by Indian metros. There are policy fixes for this looming public health catastrophe. But without popular pressure on politicians to prod them into action, they are unlikely to be adopted.