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Delhi’s air pollution is only getting worse. This could be AAP’s big chance to make a difference.

January 31, 2014 3:47:24 am

Delhi’s air pollution is only getting worse. This could be AAP’s big chance to make a difference.

Earlier this month, an environmental performance index released by scientists at Yale and Columbia universities ranked India abysmally low in its measurement of overall air quality (174 out of 178). Suggestions that Delhi had beaten Beijing to the uncoveted crown of “most polluted city” — based on comparing average exposure to PM 2.5, microscopic toxic particulates that can enter a person’s lungs and bloodstream — followed.

The ensuing squabble has distracted from the bottom line, which is that air pollution has reached dangerous levels in both cities, and that India has a serious air quality problem with terrible health consequences.

Though Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad had disavowed knowledge of “conclusive evidence” that air pollution does, indeed, have an adverse impact on the “prevalence of respiratory and other diseases”, a study published last year found that long-term exposure to pollution, especially particulates of the kind found in such concentration in Delhi air, dramatically affects life expectancy, shaving off as much as five and a half years. The World Bank estimates that India loses 1.7 per cent of its GDP to such ailments caused by increased exposure to outdoor air pollution.

These distressing new studies leave little doubt that levels of pollution are increasing. The Sheila Dikshit government — with a little help from the courts — tried to balance the city’s exponential growth in vehicular traffic with more stringent environmental norms; Delhi Metro began operation, light commercial vehicles were made to switch to CNG, pollution norms were strengthened and stricter emissions norms for new vehicles were adopted. But this only underlines the enormity of the challenge that confronts the AAP government in Delhi. Despite these interventions, Delhi’s air has become progressively more toxic, in no small part due to the crush of cars added to the capital’s choked roads every day.

Unlike Beijing, no Indian city government can impose limits on car ownership. But investment in public transport facilities and an openness to experimentation could set the template on managing pollution. Saurabh Bhardwaj, the AAP’s minister for both transport and environment, is uniquely placed to leave a lasting imprint on an issue dear to the aam aadmi’s heart — literally.

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