Delhi, We Can Beat This Smog. 7 Steps, Get Started Now

Should one laugh or cry at Delhi's pollution emergency? Exactly one year and a day after its record-breaking pollution level, we are back to nearly the same low. This is despite Indian scientists, researchers and environmentalists having done some fine work in breaking down the problem and identifying solutions. And, to an extent, steps taken by the government and the Supreme Court. So is the main problem that for most people, it's not really a concern, and so there's only episodic political pressure?

The pollution problem is big but is fixable with a mix of policy, political will, and micromanagement by residents at their home and neighbourhood level. And, where required, appeal to the Supreme Court for intervention.

Not that that always works. Consider steps that can help Delhi:

1. Get more buses on the road, get more private vehicles off the roads: In 1998, the Supreme Court ordered the fleet to be increased to 10,000 buses. Almost 20 years later, despite many promises, Delhi's has less than half that.

2. Stop farm fires, help farmers by funding direct, farm-to-farm help: there have been orders, offers, reminders, protests, appeals and whatnot to stop farmers in Punjab and Haryana from burning crop stubble. But this continues. Farmers, who in a lot of cases are likely to be financially distressed, say it is still the most economical way of clearing their fields for the next sowing (even though fires destroy nutrients in the soil). In some cases, the saving is just around a thousand rupees per acre. On the other hand there's already enough technical know-how on alternatives. What's missing is the political will and, the two states claim, funds to stop the burning. Recent reports suggest that this would be around Rs 2,000 crores, perhaps more. Can the centre and northern states not jointly finance and actually go farm-to-farm and remove the stubble for the farmers? This can be heavily subsidised, or even free. A couple of thousand crores is a lot, but should be weighed against the benefits. These fires affect the lives of hundreds of millions across north India, specially kids, pregnant women and the elderly; there's also the economic loss in terms of man-days lost due to sick leave or weakened workers. Over 50% of Delhi's PM 2.5 pollution in winter is from biomass burning and vehicles according to the landmark IIT-Kanpur 2016 report.

3. Target diesel private cars, SUVs: Both diesel and petrol are polluting, but studies have shown that diesel cars are many times worse than petrol ones. Even the advance Euro 6 ones, which India is scheduled to get in April 2020, have failed emission tests. Diesel cars and SUVs should be dis-incentivized in Delhi, as many other cities around the world are doing. The Supreme Court began a 1% cess on vehicles with diesel engines about 2000 cc. Why not increase the cess and expand it to under-two litre engined vehicles? Also, bring the prices of petrol and diesel at par.

4. Pedestrian-first policy for Delhi's roads: Plan roads, crossings, escalators and so on with pedestrians in mind. Do this based on analysis and common sense. For instance, the cross at AIIMS, one of the busiest in the capital, has a subway but it's barely used. The elderly, the infirm, kids and others can often be seen making a dash across the road over the subway! It's surreal. In many residential areas, driving to the local market is safer and more convenient than walking. That needs to be changed.

5. Plants along roads: Studies show that trees, bushes, hedges help counter pollutants. Of course, a careful selection should be made to suit Indian conditions so that it's not counter-productive and we don't opt for plants trap pollutants rather than get rid of these.

6. Electric heaters for security guards, and other such common-sensical steps: That's how basic combating pollution can be, as GRAP has shown. Homes and Resident Welfare Associations are required - by law now - to provide electric heaters to guards in winter to prevent them from lighting up little fires to keep warm. Groups of residents, and traders in small or large markets can keep an eye out for open burning, even if it is dhabas or hotels using coal and wood. RWAs, trader groups and local police should be empowered to crackdown on polluters.

7. The single-most important step: residents should create political pressure: Sadly, this largely happens only when pollution is at 'severe' or 'emergency' levels. The Delhi Chief Minister has requested a meeting with his Punjab and Haryana counterparts to discuss the farm fires. That's closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. Another example: the governments of Delhi and India have done precious little over the years to stop the frequent fires and smoldering in the three garbage mountains in the north, east and south of the capital.

The current pollution levels may be extraordinary but fundamentally, the pollution is not. With the possible exception of farm fires, all pollutants are emitted continuously throughout the year. But it's because of climatic factors that these linger around us (little wind, cooler temperatures in November) or are dispersed faster (summer heat) or washed away (monsoon).

The graphic below illustrates how the changing weather in Delhi affects the level of PM 2.5, which is the pollutant doctors are most concerned about as this toxin easily enters a human body and settles deep within causing lung and heart diseases. The graphic also indicates that the daily level of PM 2.5 is frequently way above the WHO's safe limit of 25 micrograms per cubic metre in all seasons except Monsoon.

Environmentalists like Sunita Narain, Sarath Guttikunda and agencies like SAFAR and CPCB have documented for years how pollution is generated around the clock, across the country, not just in Delhi. If a clean-up has to happen, it needs to be across the north. From Punjab to Bihar, it's a belt of roughly 400 million people. Delhi-NCR, given the density of population, may be the worst, but the pollution sources, India's 'smogsboard', are broadly the same in other cities as well.

Studies by IIT-Kanpur, CSE, GRAP, Vidhi Legal Policy, etc have a ton of practical, doable suggestions. But, be it governments or residents, experience shows that even a little action takes a lot of effort. 

(Chetan Bhattacharji is Managing Editor at NDTV)

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