The past few months have been exceptionally good for Delhi in terms of air quality. September was the cleanest month in nine years for the capital. A number of pollution control measures contributed to this feat, with the amount of suspended particulate matter (PM)—both PM2.5 and PM10—falling within “safe” limits. The city clocked 19 days of “satisfactory” levels on the Air Quality Index (AQI) and 11 days of “moderate” levels. But with the onset of winter and a slew of festivals coming up, Delhi’s air quality will only worsen.
The winter of 2017 was particularly alarming for Delhi. Air quality deteriorated across the country with 2.1 million deaths caused because of air pollution in that year. Outdoor air pollution is the fifth largest killer in India and air quality has been consistently poor for some years now. About 80 per cent of India’s cities fail to maintain the prescribed standards of ambient air quality. In 2016, it was discovered that on the day after Deepavali PM2.5 levels in the air crossed 700. It was the highest level recorded in the world and about 29 times more than the standards laid down by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as per National Ambient Air Quality Standards. The presence of PM2.5 should range between 40 and 60 and the presence of PM10 should range between 60 and 100. Given the distressing situation, the Supreme Court directed the suspension of licences for the sale of fireworks in Delhi and the national capital region (NCR). The order was not strictly adhered to.
A study conducted by researchers from across the globe showed that 10,000 to 30,000 deaths had taken place as a result of air pollution in Delhi in 2018. In 2010, according to a Global Burden of Disease study, approximately 6,27,000 premature deaths occurred in India because of high PM2.5 presence, with ischaemic heart diseases claiming more lives than respiratory diseases. In 2014, the WHO named Delhi as the most polluted city in the world and said that 13 out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world were in India. The biggest source of air pollution in Delhi was PM2.5.
The high air pollution is a result of mainly meteorological conditions such as low wind speeds. Since multiple sources contribute to the problem, no single measure can be the answer. Sector-specific strategies are required to control air pollution, which is driven by rapid urbanisation, transportation, industrialisation, power generation and agricultural activities. Industrial and vehicular emissions, construction activities and road dust are perennial sources of air pollution. A large part of the problem, however, is caused by seasonal stubble burning. According to a recent The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) study, regions beyond the NCR, where crop residue burning takes place extensively, contribute up to 40 per cent of the particulate matter in Delhi’s air.
TERI had submitted a 10-point Emergency Response Plan (ERP) to the Delhi and Central governments for immediate control of air pollution levels. Later, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) notified the implementation of the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP), which specified the actions to be taken when very high levels of pollutants are present in the city.
Multi-sectoral regional-scale plans are required for the entire NCR and beyond to control pollution in Delhi, according to TERI. Transport (tail-pipe, road dust), construction and refuse burning contribute 35 per cent of the PM2.5 in Delhi; domestic biomass burning for cooking, industries, transport and diesel generator sets contribute 25 per cent of the PM2.5 in the rest of the NCR; crop residue burning, domestic biomass burning and industries contribute 40 per cent of the PM2.5 in the regions beyond the NCR.
The ERP suggests strict enforcement of rules through heavy penalties on agricultural waste-burning, using satellite-based tools and mobile-based applications to detect fires in the NCR; increasing tenfold the parking charges at all the government parking spaces (except in hospitals and other similar places) in the entire NCR; congestion pricing/odd-even scheme for all private vehicles in the NCR; ban on the entry/movement of vehicles older than 10 years (checks and penalties) in Delhi-NCR; vacuum cleaning/watering of the roads in the NCR; reduction in power plant emissions through stoppage of power plants in Delhi and upwind in the NCR (for example, in Panipat) and ensuring power from the central grids; stopping all major construction activities in the NCR; reduction in refuse burning; closure of schools/colleges and working from home for 50 per cent of the staff of companies, ensuring lower travel requirements in the NCR; and issuing advisories wherein all buildings reduce outdoor air intake through air conditioners.
The Delhi government put in place a slew of measures from this list. A Supreme Court-mandated panel sought local action plans for 14 pollution hotspots in Delhi and five in the NCR identified by the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority. These include Okhla Phase-II, Narela, Bawana, Mundka, Punjabi Bagh, Dwarka, Wazirpur, Rohini, Vivek Vihar, Anand Vihar, R.K. Puram, Jahangirpuri, and Ashok Vihar, and zones in the NCR such as Faridabad, Gurgaon, Bahadurgarh, Bhiwadi and Sahibabad.
The Delhi Pollution Control Committee started night-patrolling and penalising industries that used non-PNG (piped natural gas) fuels and construction agencies that failed to prevent dust emissions. Strict vigil is being maintained to prevent the burning of garbage, plastic and rubber waste in the open.
On October 15, the GRAP came into force to discourage private vehicles on the roads, stop the entry of trucks, stop the use of diesel generators, and close brick kilns and stone crushers. According to System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR, developed by the Ministry of Earth Science and the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology), biomass burning is likely to contribute 9 per cent of Delhi’s PM2.5 concentration.
From November 4, the Delhi government’s odd-even car rationing scheme is set to be implemented for the third time, along with the extension of the ban on diesel gensets in the NCR. The frequency of bus and Metro services will be increased and parking fees hiked when the air quality becomes poor. When it turns “severe”, the GRAP recommends closure of brick kilns, stone crushers and hot-mix plants; sprinkling of water; frequent mechanised cleaning of roads; and maximising power generation from natural gas. In case of an “emergency”, the measures to be implemented include stopping the entry of trucks into Delhi and a ban on construction. The GRAP is expected to reduce the pollution level over the years and fix accountability.
But more needs to be done. Earlier this year, the MoEFCC launched the five-year action plan, National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), to reduce air pollution by 30 per cent by 2024, with 2017 as the base year. But a Greenpeace India report, which identified 139 cities where air pollution levels exceed the national average, said the NCAP was based on limited data from 2011 to 2015 and a large number of highly polluted cities had been kept out of its purview. The report, titled “Airpocalypse III”, analysed air pollution data from 313 cities and towns for the year 2017. It said that of these cities, 241 were on the list of non-attainment cities (highly polluted). The NCAP has included only 102.
As the AQI showed the levels of pollution in parts of Delhi-NCR crossing the 450 mark into the “hazardous” zone, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal released a statement asking the people to brace themselves for the upcoming months. The United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) imagery showed a number of fire-burning incidents in the north-western region of India which were likely because of crop burning. Kejriwal said that the deteriorating air quality of Delhi was a result of stubble burning in Karnal.
“This is not just a question of the air quality in Delhi. Perhaps the largest health impacts of the stubble burning will be faced by the residents of Karnal and other parts of Haryana. Delhi gets the most attention because it has more media presence, it has the Central government,” said Kejriwal. He added that the blame for the deteriorating air quality could not be put on farmers as they had to prepare for the next crop cycle, but it was the responsibility of governments to provide them the technology that was now easily available. “I appeal to the governments concerned to help the farmers. The Centre will have to take the lead. Efforts by individuals cannot succeed. I am not interested in pointing fingers at this point when people are suffering,” he said. He added that Delhi’s pollution had only reduced because of collective efforts. “Pollution is a complex problem and could only have reduced due to the collective efforts of all governments and agencies in Delhi. Everyone made their efforts, but the most important contribution was made by the people of Delhi.”
But even as Delhiites choked, politicians continued to spar over petty matters. Kejriwal was supposed to participate in the C40 Climate Summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, and speak in the session titled “Breathe deeply: City solutions for clean air”. He was supposed to engage with the heads and mayors of the cities of New York, London, Los Angeles and Berlin to discuss issues relating to climate change and meet the mayors of Sydney, Johannesburg and Rotterdam for bilateral engagements. But the Ministry of External Affairs denied him permission to attend the summit and he addressed the summit through video-conferencing.