The air in several places in the country becomes laden with toxic matter around Diwali, almost as a ritual associated with the festival. The toxic cocktail of particulate matter (PM) from car tailpipes and cracker burning casts a dirty haze that is at its most noxious in Delhi. Burning crop residue in states around the capital compounds its problems. The week before Diwali, the city’s pollution levels, according to the National Air Quality Index, were “very poor”. This, according to a Central government advisory, “can cause respiratory illness on prolonged exposure and the effect may be more pronounced in people with heart and lung diseases”. A day before the festival, the pollution levels in the capital breached the “severe” limit, at which point the air becomes harmful for perfectly healthy people.
By all accounts, the Delhi government is hoping the pollution will dissipate on its own after the festivities recede. But if past years are anything to go by, matters may not improve much. Bad air has become a permanent winter fixture in Delhi. Last year, the National Air Quality Index ranked the city’s air as “severe” on 20 days in November. Immediately after it was ranked poorly by the air quality index, Delhi received another admonition with the Supreme Court describing the city as a “gas chamber”. The rebuke led the Delhi government to ration road space in January and April. For 15 days in these two months, cars and two-wheelers with odd/even numbers ran on alternate days. But the two fortnights of road rationing is all that the Delhi government has to show in terms of measures to improve the city’s air.
Removing the dirty haze from Delhi’s air requires much more than such sporadic efforts. A robust public transport system is one of the bare essentials. Several studies have shown that public transport provides more than 65 per cent of Delhi’s commuting needs but occupies less than five per cent of road space. Public transport in itself, however, might not be enough. Road rationing did not improve matters in Mexico city, for example, which had a good public transport system, because the well-off bought another car. Economists believe that the middle classes are likely to remain enamoured with cars unless there are strong disincentives to using personal transport. They advocate a combination of pollution taxes, car free days/areas, robust public transport and better urban planning. London, Milan, Oslo, Stockholm and Singapore, for example, have introduced congestion taxes to curb cars. Last year, media reports had it that the Delhi government was considering a congestion tax. It has not garnered the political will, so far, to impose the levy. There is, of course, no one-size-fits-all formula to curb air pollution. The trouble, however, is that governments — both in Delhi and at the Centre — have not displayed sincerity in improving Delhi’s air.