Trouble in the Air in Delhi

Disastrous pollution continues as governments, politicians dither

By: Neeta Lal

Even as environmentalists and scientists warned governments at the UN-sponsored conference on climate change in Glasgow last week to urgently whittle down greenhouse gas emissions to avoid "catastrophic global warming,” India, the world's fourth biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, is still deriving more than half of the country's electricity from coal.

It is paying for that with air quality that has put 22 Indian cities among the world’s 30 most polluted, with Delhi ranked the most contaminated capital globally. On the day after the Diwali holiday, ironically called the ‘Festival of Lights,” the air quality index registered above 600 in Delhi on a scale in which anything over 100 is considered hazardous by the World Health Organization. The British medical journal The Lancet projected that 1.67 million deaths were attributable to air pollution in India in 2019, including almost 17,500 in the capital.

While Indian Prime Minister Modi was hobnobbing with global leaders at the UN-sponsored COP summit in Glasgow, the Supreme Court was lambasting the Delhi government – helmed by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal of Aam Admi Party – for its criminal neglect of air pollution that it said has reached a crisis level. "We have been forced to wear masks at home also, the situation is very serious," said Chief Justice of India N V Ramana.

Hospitals in Delhi, a city of 20 million people, are reporting a surge in patients complaining of breathing difficulties with asthmatics are leaving town for the less polluted hills.

“We’re getting a lot of patients complaining of shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, asthma episodes, and chest pain,” said pulmonologist Pratik Nair at Max Hospital, Saket New Delhi. “Breathing in air pollutants can irritate your airways and puts you at risk for lung cancer, heart attacks, stroke, and in extreme cases, even premature death.”

Experts say Delhi’s air has deteriorated alarmingly due to crop stubble burning, vehicular emissions, coal-fired plants outside the city and other sources, as well as open garbage burning and dust.

According to recent studies, the air is so toxic for human health that it is akin to smoking 15 cigarettes daily. Levels of pollution are usually off the chart and the Air Quality Index routinely touches 500 in winter, which, say environmentalists, is the worst time for the landlocked metropolis as pollutants get trapped by the dense and cold air. 

Despite vowing to clean the city’s air for years, the Delhi government has failed abysmally. Earlier this year, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s government opened its first “smog tower” containing 40 giant fans that pump 1,000 cubic meters of air per second through filters. The $2 million installation halves the amount of harmful particulates in the air but only within a radius of one square km according to engineers, as per an AFP report.

However, experts say more pernicious is the burning of agricultural waste in Delhi’s neighboring states—Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh – which has continued despite a Supreme Court ban and is a major contributor to the city’s pollution.

Thousands of farmers around the capital burn their crop residue at the start of every winter to clear their fields from recently harvested paddies to make way for next season’s crops. The number of farm fires this season has been the highest in the past four years, according to government data.

Despite the pollution’s acuteness, however, neither the Delhi government nor those in the surrounding states have been able to cobble together a sustainable solution to address the issue. Petty politics has dominated the pollution debate more than citizen welfare, say observers. Fear of irking the powerful farmers’ lobbies by telling them to stop burning stubble has further deterred governments from taking concrete action.

“Nobody wants to alienate the farmers in these states as they are a crucial vote bank,” said an Uttar Pradesh senior politician from the main opposition Congress party. “The BJP government at the center doesn’t want to stick its neck out either as it has already annoyed the farmers’ lobby with its farmer-unfriendly legislation last year due to which they have been on strike for months. So they’re avoiding any more confrontation with this powerful group by telling them to stop burning crop residue.”

Some opposition parties have also demanded a white paper from both the Centre and the Delhi government on the steps taken by them to tackle pollution in the national capital and said they should be held accountable for playing with the health of people.

"It is high time political accountability was fixed and the people of Delhi should hold both the BJP and the AAP accountable for playing with their health and jeopardizing it," a leader said.

The Supreme Court has also blasted Delhi’s incumbent Aam Admi Party government for its inaction in curbing pollution by passing the buck on the farmers. Stating that the Delhi govt was making 'lame excuses' on curbing air pollution, the Supreme Court has ordered people to work from home throughout the National Capital Region or the areas outlying Delhi.

The top court has also urged the affected states to persuade the farmers to stop stubble burning for a few days. The Central Pollution Control Board has advised authorities to prepare “for implementation of measures under ‘emergency’ category.”

Caught between politicking governments and a hapless judiciary, the citizens continue to pay a heavy price for living in Delhi. The city’s schools have been shut down again for a week even as they had barely reopened after 18 months of closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown as doctors have advised that the air is too toxic to be inhaled by minors.

Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal also shut down construction activity to cut down dust from vast, open sites. Government offices have also been asked to operate from home and private businesses advised to stick to work-from-home options as much as possible.

The government is also contemplating a “pollution lockdown” which experts say may be devastating for an already pandemic-battered economy which was seeing green shoots of resurgence after the reopening of factories and the return of tens of thousands of migrant laborers to the cities from their villages where they had receded during the pandemic.

Given the dire situation, environmentalists have also recommended additional measures like regulating traffic entry into Delhi, shutting down powerplants, hiking the rate of parking tickets by three times to deter people from traveling unnecessarily, and stopping diesel generator sets except for emergencies.