Why Delhi’s air pollution problem never gets solved
‘Who will do what needs to be done?’ This is the question which continues to be off the radar of the policymakers and the end result is for everyone to see: Delhi remains trapped in an air pollution crisis
The capital city Delhi has yet again been ranked as the most polluted megacity in the world. Last year, the Delhi chief minister compared the city to a “gas chamber”, while the Indian Medical Association issued a public warning saying it was in a state of “medical health emergency”. United Airlines had cancelled some of its Delhi-bound flights, calling Delhi’s air quality toxic, with conditions similar to a “natural disaster”. More than 2.2 million schoolchildren in Delhi are threatened with irreversible lung damage. Recently, the Delhi high court, taking suo motu notice of a fire in south Delhi, observed that endangering human lives due to air pollution, hazardous affluence and congestions cannot be tolerated. In the past, sensing government inaction, people of Delhi had even protested, demanding their right to breathe. All this indicates the extent to which air pollution has crippled public life in the city.
Notwithstanding, the air quality in Delhi continues to remain unhealthy. Delhi has a major advantage over other states since its per capita income is the second highest in the country. It houses foreign diplomatic missions and is the national capital. So, it’s puzzling that the air quality continues to be perpetually unhealthy despite national and international calls for action.
On 22 March, the government of Delhi announced its $8.2 billion annual budget for the next fiscal year. This is being hailed as country’s first “green budget” because it focuses on a number of anti-pollution measures and promises to fight pollution “scientifically”. The government of Delhi had announced 26 specific energy-efficiency and renewable-energy policy measures along with a host of international collaborations with the World Bank, the University of Washington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and C-40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. These partnerships are intended to boost the capacity of the institutions responsible for air quality-management in the city. While the budget is replete with many big-ticket items, it is still unclear how the goals of the budget would be met. There are four reasons why Delhi’s air quality is unlikely to improve anytime soon.
First, an efficient governance mechanism is central to the success of any anti-pollution effort. Air pollution in Delhi is managed by an autonomous government body, the Environmental Pollution Control Authority (EPCA). The authority has published a plan that calls for responses commensurate with the severity of air pollution. For example, as the air quality hits the “severe” mark (PM2.5>250g/m3), the plan requires the EPCA to direct the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) to halt all construction activity, stop the use of diesel generators, and close brick kilns and power plants. Unfortunately, at least 16 different agencies are currently involved in the implementation of this plan. Some are under the control of the Union government, some under the Delhi government, and some are under the administrative control of neighbouring states. These agencies are ruled by fierce political rivals, and there is no apparent effort to promote coordination among them. The agencies are involved in a continuous public blame game in which various political factions try to make themselves look good. Consequently, policy measures are not effectively enforced.
Second, Delhi’s air pollution is a regional problem, and there is very little that Delhi can do about it on its own. A study conducted by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) in Nagpur, India, showed that about 60% of the PM2.5 burden in Delhi is due to the neighbouring states. No policy is likely to work unless it takes regional considerations into account. So, Delhi’s pollution needs to be treated as a regional, if not national, problem, and inter-agency efforts need to be controlled and coordinated by a central source.
Third, Delhi needs to search for the sources of emissions. During the past decade, there have been 15 source apportionment studies of which 10 have been based on direct sampling method while five are based on secondary data. While sources of emissions remain same in all the studies, the contribution from different sources to Delhi’s pollution varies greatly. This only underscores both the unreliability of existing studies as well as the difficulty in making accurate estimates, which is partly due to Delhi’s complex meteorology and the changing nature of the sources of emissions, both in space and time.
Finally, Delhi lacks infrastructure. It has only half the buses it needs for public transport (that’s the lowest level in the past eight years). This means that private automobile use continues to grow, adding to the air pollution problem. The DPCC, which has a mandate to enforce compliance with air pollution rules in the city, suffers from a serious scientific and technical manpower shortage (operating at about three-quarters strength since 1990). These gaps in public infrastructure undermine public confidence in the city’s ability to address the worsening air pollution problem.
Unless these deficiencies are addressed, the mere announcement of another anti-pollution promise would not accomplish anything. So, the obvious question is: “Who will do what needs to be done?” This is the question which continues to be off the radar of the policymakers and the end result is for everyone to see: Delhi remains trapped in an air pollution crisis.
Shekhar Chandra is an MS candidate in political science and a PhD candidate in environmental policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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