Down to the last gasp

Down to the last gasp

Delhi’s pollution is high because of growing numbers of vehicles, including toxic gas-emitting diesel cars and because of lack of enforcement to check everything from road and construction dust to garbage burning.

There is no question today that Delhi faces a public health emergency because of its deteriorating air quality. It is death by breath. The issue now is why has Delhi’s air become so bad and what can be done to combat this toxic and hazardous pollution. In the winter gone past, in November, December 2015 and January 2016, air was classified as “severely polluted” for over 65 per cent of the days. According to the government’s own air quality index, this would mean pollution is so bad that it would cause “respiratory effects even on healthy people”. This winter, the season has started with a toxic bang-the level of particulate matter in the city exceeds 14-16 times the safe limit and is worse than even the infamous London smog of 1952.

There should be no doubt that the current air quality is a result of a combination of things, including adverse weather. First, Delhi’s own pollution is high because of growing numbers of vehicles, including toxic gas-emitting diesel cars and because of lack of enforcement to check everything from road and construction dust to garbage burning. Second, there are pollutants being borne by winds from Punjab and Haryana. Here, farmers are burning leftover paddy straw, which has no value as fodder. Farmers in these states are desperate to clean their fields before planting wheat and the only other option to burning away the stubble is to use machines to plough it back up or to bale it for use in power plants. All this is costly. It is cheaper and easier to burn. Third, there is Diwali and subsequent festivals and marriages, where people in Delhi and its vicinity have burnt crackers, adding to the already polluted airshed. Over and above this were the near-still weather conditions and winter inversion, which has trapped pollutants in the air and made it hazardous to breathe. But this situation is not new or unusual. Last winter was bad. This winter will be worse. So, it is time we got our act together.

Remember that in the late 1990s, Delhi’s air was equally polluted. But then it used the option to leapfrog to cleaner fuel-compressed natural gas (CNG) – which brought benefits. Delhi could actually see the stars after its bus and rickshaw vehicle fleet had been converted to CNG. But then all the benefits were lost. The number of vehicles has exploded, not just in Delhi but in neighbouring cities too. Now the answer is to restrain the growth of cars and build a convenient and modern public transport system so that even the rich do not use their vehicles. Now the answer is to drastically improve the quality of fuel and technology used in trucks or find ways for them to bypass cities. Now the answer is to find more CNG to use in industries and to ensure that there is tight enforcement of rules from institutions that have been whittled away deliberately. All this is difficult. Even more difficult than earlier.

The fact is that most of India is getting equally polluted-air is equally foul but it is just not monitored. This is the difference between Delhi and other cities. Other cities also have everything going for a pollution cocktail-growing numbers of diesel vehicles, poor public transport, weak surveillance of polluting factories and poverty that forces people to burn biomass instead of using cleaner cooking fuel.

And let us be clear that air pollution is a great equaliser. The middle class in the city – those of us who own cars, often diesel SUVs – can buy air purifiers and believe that they will protect us and our children from bad air. But this is not enough. We will have to breathe at some time and if the air is polluted, then no mask or purifier will protect us from harm. It is also clear that Delhi cannot clean up its air and let the rest of India, particularly people living in its vicinity, continue to live in polluted conditions. The airshed is one and wind makes pollution move and go places. The answer is to clean the air for all.

This is the real challenge. This cannot be about selective cleaning-for some people or for some places. It also cannot be about choosing some sources of pollution over others. If we clean up the fuel used in cars but not the fuel used in factories or thermal power plants, it will not work. Similarly, it will not work if we do not have strategies to offer incentives to farmers who don’t burn their crop residue. Also, they will do more if we do more. The Delhi government cannot simply blame the farmers when its own track record in enforcing steps to combat pollution is so poor. This is why air pollution control is not just a life-and-death matter but also demands collective effort. This much is clear. The question is: Will we get our act together to do what needs to be done?

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