Opinion | Delhi’s pollution problem: Myth and reality
For any strategy to work against Delhi pollution, it has to insert citizens as stakeholders. At the moment, they are on the outside looking in
It is that time of the year when living conditions in the Indian capital take a severe hit as air pollution levels undergo a sharp deterioration.
For the record, the cause for panic are the spike in the presence of tiny particulate matter known as PM2.5 and PM10 in the air. Its level was classified as hazardous over the weekend. The size of the particulate matter is 2.5 microns and 10 microns respectively; given that these are so tiny, there are 25,000 microns in one inch, they can easily lodge themselves into our respiratory tracts—an invisible killer.
As if on cue, it sets off an annual ritual wherein the city’s political incumbent and their counterparts from the adjoining states engage in a round of vitriolic mutual blame game; social media and drawing rooms abound with moral outrage; and the pollution mitigation industry rakes it in as citizens, at least those who can afford it, rush to acquire air purifiers and personal air pollution masks.
By February-March when nature ordains a reordering of atmospheric conditions, the pollution will recede, the public venting will cease and Delhi will limp back to normalcy—if one can call it that. And all of us would have moved on to the next news cycle of outrage.
This is precisely the problem with the discourse on fighting pollution, not just in Delhi, but across the country. As famously coined by Shakespeare in Macbeth, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.
For long, the business of fighting pollution has remained the preserve of the so-called green-jholawallahs, before their dire warnings about environmental degradation began to play out. Unfortunately, instead of generating a sustainable solution, the debate is consumed by the country’s new obsession: the moral outrage industry.
Two years ago, at the very same time of the year when the city was facing an identical challenge posed by a sharp deterioration in the air quality, there was at least a modicum of public policy response—pursuing out-of-the-box ideas such as the odd-even system for cars. This year, even this tokenism was given a quiet burial.
Regardless, any mitigation strategy has to recognize the pollution problem. At the moment, the rhetoric drowns out the facts.
First, the peculiar topography of Delhi leaves it vulnerable to such pollution. It is, to put it simply, shaped like a saucer.
As a result, if the crosswinds cease, then the city has an overhang of particulate matter.
Second, new data on the emission inventory for the National Capital Region issued by the ministry of earth sciences reveals that the biggest contributor to particulate matter is the transportation sector—it jumped 40% between 2010 and 2018. Together with the industrial sector (sprouting around Delhi), they account for the overwhelming share of particulate pollution.
The study found that 1.1 million vehicles enter Delhi every day; and 40% of these vehicles are from outside the city. The spurt in shared cab services, most of whom have no incentive to maintain their vehicles, no doubt are figuring in this pollution math.
Third, flowing from the above, the burning of crops by farmers in adjoining states is a contributor and not the primary cause as the name-calling would suggest. Part of the problem is that it is something we can see visually, compared to emissions from vehicular pollution.
Taking all this together, some common sense solutions are on offer.
For the short term, fixing the dilapidated conditions of the roads in the city (for which the warring corporations and the state government have to bury the hatchet), random deployment of speed-breakers and enforcement of traffic regulations instead and routine checks on whether vehicles have been cleared for environmental checks.
For the long term, a viable public transport system strategy needs to be evolved.
Yes, the Metro has provided great relief, but if this benefit is to be shared across all economic classes, then there is no alternative to an active bus service (like the now abandoned BRT or Bus Rapid Transit).
And, of course, for any strategy to work, it has to insert citizens as stakeholders. At the moment, they are on the outside looking in.
Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus
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