Clear the haze

Clear the haze

Cleaning Delhi’s air requires urban planners, health experts and policymakers to work together.

The unhealthy haze over Delhi seems to have cleared, partially. But looks can be deceptive. Though there has been a marked improvement in air quality in the past two days, the pollution parameters are still about five to six times over the safe limits.

According to the Central Pollution Control Bureau (CPCB) yardstick, the quality of the city’s air is still “severe” at most places and “very poor” at some others. The so-called improvement comes as the Delhi government announced a slew of “emergency measures” targeted at improving air quality. But there seems to be a pattern to the Delhi government’s response: Almost every year, as soon as winter sets in, a thick smog engulfs Delhi, residents complain of breathing difficulties and other health problems; there is media outcry and, at times, courts step in. As soon as there is a semblance of improvement in air quality, the government lets its guard down.

In 2014, a World Health Organisation study ranked Delhi as the most polluted city in the world. What is even more disquieting is that 12 other Indian cities were ranked among the 20 worst performers in the world. The improvement in Delhi’s air quality over the last two days has been accompanied by a deterioration of the quality of air in Agra, Lucknow and Kanpur. These cities, like Delhi, are landlocked and have very few avenues of flushing out the polluted air. Unfortunately, urban planning in India has rarely factored in such limitations of cities. The National Green Tribunal, with an unintended sense of the absurd, has tried to make up for this failure: In the wake of the recent emergency, it admonished the Delhi government for not deploying helicopters to create artificial rain to wash away the haze.

Desperate times do call for desperate measures. But rather than calling for the deployment of flying machines to clean Delhi’s air, the country’s green court would have been better advised to ask public health experts, urban planners and policymakers to put their heads together. The current smog is the most extreme manifestation of Delhi’s air pollution — and that at many other places in the country. For the most part of the winter every year, and sometimes even during summers, Delhi’s air quality hovers around CPCB’s “very poor” and “poor” criterion. According to the WHO’s Global Burden of Health study, people in Delhi, on an average, lose six years of their lives due to the city’s poor air quality. More than six lakh Indians lose their lives due to air-pollution related diseases. These figures point to long-standing emergency and not a seasonal one as the authorities seem to believe.