Another winter is upon us and with it once again toxic smog descends across India’s capital. Over the last few weeks, Delhi’s air pollution levels fluctuated between the ‘very poor’ and ‘severe’ categories. This is a scenario that repeats every year. Yet the administration fails to put sufficient effort into designing and implementing sustainable solutions.
As Delhi’s winter smog worsens, crop stubble burning gets the most blame. However, the rising levels of air pollution in the capital are caused by a number of factors – vehicular emissions, pollution from industry and large-scale construction activities are some of them. All the causes need to be addressed by the government if the city’s air is to become healthier.
The national capital region has the highest number of small-scale industries in India. Studies have found that industrial pollution adds as much as 19 per cent to the poor air quality. An assessment made by the Central Pollution Control Board reveals that industrial clusters in and around the city such as Wazirpur, Anand Parbat, Okhla and Naraina, are the second most polluted in India.
In the outskirts of the National Capital Region, one also finds more than 300 brick kilns. Their emissions rise during the winter months as well. Then there is the unsustainable construction activity taking place in the capital. The Delhi Pollution Control Committee reports that 30 per cent of the air pollution in Delhi is a result of dust arising from construction sites.
The construction industry fails to comply with environmental laws and the administration fails to ensure compliance. The transport sector is another major contributor to air pollution in the city. Research has found that it is the cause of 28 per cent of all PM 2.5 emissions and 80 per cent of nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide in Delhi’s air.
Control and reduction of air pollution requires coordinated measures to be taken across several sectors. The national level target of 20 to 30 per cent reduction of particulate matter concentrations by 2024, proposed in the 2019 National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), cannot be achieved with current governance and targets.
And there needs to be sustainable city and regional planning. Several critically polluted areas with high air pollution scores are found not only within the National Capital Region but also in areas neighbouring it. Regional air quality management measures become imperative. Without such an approach, pollution from neighbouring areas will continue to plague Delhi.
The central government’s introduction of a carbon tax on coal led several major industries to shift to less expensive fossil fuel-based alternatives. In 2017, the Supreme Court prohibited the use of cheaper alternatives in the National Capital Region. However, these types of fuel continue to be used in neighbouring states. Emissions arising from their use continue to contribute to Delhi’s worsening air quality.
Regional level planning is vital to address the ever-growing problem of the capital’s toxic air. The steps taken by the administration have failed to address the problem. They have been piecemeal, often delayed, and implemented only after the pollution levels have already risen.
A holistic sustainable development plan needs to be implemented for the capital. This must include sustainable construction, city and road design, and an expansion of green cover. The green cover that remains in Delhi needs to be preserved, rather than being deployed to develop infrastructure and housing. Often such activities take place in violation of laws that have been adopted to protect such areas. Strict land use monitoring and legal action against violators is urgently needed.
Such measures should be complemented by reforms in the transport sector. The transition to compressed natural gas was a step forward. But the number of vehicles in the city has increased so much that this is no longer enough. The government needs to ramp up its support of electric vehicles, both for public and private transport.
Delhi’s air pollution is challenged with a number of causes and factors that must be addressed holistically. A long-term and multi-sectoral programme needs to be designed and implemented. Only then can there come winter in Delhi where the sun is not hidden behind a veil of polluted air.
(The writer is Associate Professor and Assistant Dean of Student Affairs, Jindal School of Environment and Sustainability, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat)