Delhi's Death Breath: Air Pollution in India
Image Courtesy: Adnan Abidi/Reuters
As per the World Health Organisation (WHO), over 7 million people lose their lives, annually, to ailments directly linked to the unhealthy quality of air which they breathe. Moreover, 80 per cent of the people living in urban landscapes inhale the kind of air that misses WHO’s minimum quality mark by a mile. 
The Lancet Commission for pollution and health, in 2015, attributed over 9 million premature deaths to air pollution. Out of these 9 million, 2.5 million deaths were reported from India alone, the highest among all surveyed countries.
In India, air pollution is the third most dangerous killer, ranking just above smoking. A report titled “State of Global Air 2019” found out that, in 2017, ambient air pollution and indoor air pollution collectively contributed to over 1.2 million deaths in India. The study also claims that globally more people succumb to pollution-related complications than to vehicular accidents, every year.
Image Courtesy: Reuters
Delhi, India’s capital and home to the highest policymakers of the country, tops the list of the cities with the highest level of particulate pollution, both nationally and internationally. A worldwide survey carried out across 1,650 cities by WHO categorised the quality of air in Delhi as the worst among all major cities of the world. The problem of Delhi pollution turned into a full-blown crisis and garnered global attention in 2015 after System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR), which operates under the country’s Ministry of Earth Sciences, estimated the PM 2.5 levels in Delhi at 295 microgram/m3 and PM10 levels at 470 micrograms/m3 – putting Air Quality Index at 430-435 or “Severe”. Following the findings, a medical health warning was put out and people were advised to stay indoors.
As per The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) literature on AQI, the number should ideally be below 100, and any figure above 100 puts sensitive groups (children, elderly, people with asthma, etc.), those working outdoors and, eventually, everybody at an elevated risk. If the number shoots up to 400 or beyond it is considered hazardous, exposing the entire population to “serious health effects”. The period between 2015 and 2017 witnessed 34 such days.
In 2019, the number stood at 11 days, and the figure was, apparently, a 4 per cent drop from what it was in 2018. Talking about the PM 2.5 pollutant in particular, the particles have the dangerous ability to cross the blood barrier and permeate internal organs. The exposure to this pollutant, at a level experienced in Delhi, impairs cognitive ability in children, constricts blood vessels, inflames brain tissue and triggers proteins known for causing Alzheimer’s.
Since then(2015), visibility altering smog and respiratory ailments have become a recurring problem, but enjoy the attention of policy makers and media headlines only during the winter months (from October to December); the time during which the problem is acute and thus more conspicuous. However, as a result of mounting public pressure and international backlash, some policy steps have indeed been taken by the legislators, both at the union as well as the state levels. Apart from vehicular traffic and industrial emissions, stubble burning, in the neighbouring agricultural states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, has been identified as a leading cause for Delhi’s plummeting air quality.
Image Courtesy: Associated Press
To discourage farmers from burning stubble, post harvest, both positive and negative interventions have been put in place. From providing modern machinery like ‘Happy Seeder’ to penalising farmers indulging in the crop burning, the state governments are finally bowing down to the popular uproar in the capital. However, many argue that the technology provided as an alternative is less effective in complete removal of stubble. In addition, apart from being less in number, the tractor-like equipment is highly expensive, and most farmers with a small income are financially ill-equipped to buy or lease the machinery even at its current subsidised price. Many political representatives from different states, including the Chief Minister of Punjab are critical of penalising farmers as it puts undue financial burden on the already marginalised farmers’ community.
In Delhi itself, government interventions like the famous Odd-Even Policy on non-commercial vehicles, hike in parking fees, ban on entry of trucks carrying non-essential commodities, closure of schools, restrictions on civil construction activities, ban on burning of waste etc —although well intentioned, have failed to provide any tangible result as the problem resurrects every year.
In 2016, the contribution of outdoor air pollution to India’s disease burden was 6 per cent, a number climbing to higher level with every passing year. In the month of November, last year, the Apex Court of the county came down heavily on government authorities of the four states as well as at the centre, going to the extent of calling government measures mere “gimmicks”. The court did not take a softer stance even while taking about the farmer community. In a rather passionate speech, Supreme Court judge Justice Arun Misha said,
“For the sake of your livelihood, you can’t kill others. We have no sympathy for farmers as they are doing it with complete knowledge. They are violating fundamental right to life under Article 21.... Right to live is the most important thing. It’s not the way we can live. Center and State both need to act. No room is safe to live in this city, even homes. The air quality index (AQI) level in bedrooms is above 500-600. This is the figure in Lutyens’ Delhi. Can we survive in this?” 
However, Critiques of the ‘blame the farmer’ narrative argue that stubble burning became a norm with the advent of Green Revolution, when the government encouraged farmers to rely on certain kind of fertilisers (chemical) for higher yield, to sow certain kind of crop and eventually made them accustomed to a certain way of being. Many also accuse the state and union establishments for passing the buck on poor farmers and shying away from implementing measures that are likely to bring about tangible results. Crop diversification which would disrupt the stringent ‘harvest-sowing cycle’ along with delay in sowing the summer crop which would buy farmers more time to deal with the standing stubble instead of opting for quick fixes like burning, the only viable option that they are left with during the painfully short 15 days period, are two such measures.
Image Courtesy: Indian Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar, Gujarat.
In November last year, during the Winter Session of Parliament, Minster of State for Agriculture and Farmer’s Welfare stated that the central government is in the process of formulating a “permanent solution” for the issue of stubble burning across the three states neighbouring the capital. The Minister also claimed that a committee has been formed that shall come out with a detailed report in a month or two’s duration.However, even after more than three months the report of the aforementioned committee is yet to be tabled.
The incumbent AAP government, led by Arvind Kejriwal, had reduction in pollution to one third of the current levels as one its agenda on its election manifesto. With a third consecutive electoral victory and a comfortable majority in the assembly, the opportunity is right for the ruling dispensation to take some concrete steps and ensure their proper implementation. Innovative administrative approach along with robust regulatory machinery would be the key for mitigating the ever growing air quality conundrum. It is important is that the issue should be addressed before it raises its head again, and not when it is knocking at the door.
Views expressed are solely those of the author.
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About the Author
Alika Raina is a policy researcher and writer based at New Delhi working with The Citizen. She has previously worked with Mr. Rajeev Gowda, Member of Parliament of India. She has also been associated with PRS Legislative Research. Alika holds a Plant Science graduate from Hans Raj College, University of Delhi. In the past she has worked as a freelance writer on topical issues with organisations like UdChalo. Apart from her affinity with science she also enjoys analysing diplomatic issues and public policy. She is an ardent follower of minimalism and a sustainable way of living, and summarises her beliefs in the following words: “We all can do very well without bubble wraps.”