India’s knee-jerk reactions every winter expose its inability to deal with Delhi’s toxic air crisis

Last-minute efforts.
Last-minute efforts.
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On Nov. 25, Delhi’s air quality stood at “very poor.” People were inhaling 171 micrograms of toxic particles per cubic meter of air when 25 is the World Health Organization-designated “safe level”. Not surprising then that watery eyes and sore throats are common.

Yet, this was an improvement. On Nov. 4, the presence of PM 2.5—polluting micro-particles in the air—in Delhi’s air was at 607 micrograms per cubic meter, the highest in three years.

The problem has only worsened over the years.

Of the world’s 10 most polluted cities, India has three with Delhi topping the list. The severity of the year-long pollution stares in the face during winters in the form of toxic smog. And nobody—citizens, authorities, courts, and not the least, climate activists—ought to be surprised, given the regularity of the phenomenon.

“Despite having resources such as early warning system…and graded response action plan and the existence of a commission in air quality for Delhi and the national capital region, we have failed to take preventive action,” Sunil Dahiya, an analyst at Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), told Quartz.

“And that’s why we need to resort to emergency responses.”

Band-aid to fix India’s toxic air

Yet, the reactions and the best solutions this perennial problem evokes are either hilariously identical every year or ridiculously ineffective—or both.

Schools are shut down to shield children from the worst and vehicular traffic is restricted to curb emissions. Recently, for instance, the state of Haryana mulled the possibility of the often-tried “odd-even” scheme for vehicles. Delhi has tried it in the past with only marginal success.

On Nov. 13, the supreme court suggested imposing a two-day lockdown on the national capital, given the serious “health crisis” the pollution can lead to.

“You see how bad the situation is…even in our houses, we are wearing masks,” chief justice NV Ramana told the Delhi government, seeking an “emergency plan.” Three days later, a desperate court sought an emergency central government meeting to find solutions.

In 2019, citing the pollution, the supreme court had said, “Delhi has become worse than narak (hell).”

The Delhi government, meanwhile, installed air purifiers across the city and a smog tower, inaugurated by chief minister Arvind Kejriwal in August this year. Needless to say, the 20-crore-rupee tower turned out to be simply useless. The government also banned construction work in the city.

Evidently, none of these measures is any better than a band-aid applied on a bleeding fatal injury.

“Pollution levels are very high for at least half the year in many parts of India. There is pressure on governments to respond only when pollution levels become apocalyptic in Delhi. But by then, it’s too late already…There are long-term efforts in play, but these have been too modest for the scale of the crisis,” said Santosh Harish, a fellow at New-Delhi based policy think tank, Centre for Policy Research (CPR).

“We need year-round efforts tackling each of the major sources in parallel, and sustained over several years. This is not easy, but it is also not unprecedented as other countries have managed to make substantial progress,” Harish said.

Any measure that doesn’t target emissions at source is pure wastage of public money, resources, and time, Dahiya of CREA said. Air purifiers and smog towers, he said, were “cosmetic fixes to manipulate public perception.”

Ironically, the Delhi government has so far set aside Rs457 crore this year merely to advertise its efforts to battle pollution.

What needs to be done to tackle pollution in Delhi?

The causes of pollution in Delhi were discussed earlier by Quartz. The need of the hour is to cut down on the absolute emission load from all responsible factors—vehicles, industries, construction work, and stubble burning.

Delhi recently shut down at least five of the 11 coal-based power plants in its territory, but for how long?

Sometime soon, India will have to has to let go of its dependence on coal, climate experts say.

Dahiya of CREA lists out more potential long-term measures:

  • Shifting our energy systems to renewable energy as fast as possible will cut down on the burning of fossil fuels for energy.
  • Aggressively move towards more public transportation and non-motorised transport to reduce the usage of private modes. Electrifying the transport sector.
  • Better management of solid waste, reduction of construction pollution
  • Alternatives to paddy cultivation and better management of stubble
  • Adherence to emission standards and a switch to cleaner fuels for industries

Till efforts at realising any or all of these are accelerated, Delhi will have to do with the annual charade.