Last Tuesday, even as the votes were being counted in Delhi’s elections and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was blowing up its two rivals into smithereens, fragments of a different sort — minute ones, actually — were wreaking havoc in the city’s atmosphere. I’m referring, of course, to the particulate matter (PM) suspended in abundance in Delhi’s air, especially the PM2.5, which are extremely small particles that can be breathed deep into the lungs where they get absorbed and with whose inhalation comes myriad health risks that include ailments such as asthma, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, birth defects and, quite often, early death. PM2.5 are particles emanating primarily from the combustion or burning of fossil fuels such as coal and from the emissions of motorised vehicles.
In Delhi, last Tuesday, the average PM2.5 pollution was thrice the national standard for the pollutant, making it unhealthy and a potential risk for those who live and breathe the air there. But thrice — a shocking multiple anywhere — is nothing for Delhi, which this winter saw PM2.5 shoot up to 20 times the standard, giving rise to an unprecedented spike in the number of people in the city who suffered breathing disorders. In 2014, the World Health Organisation (WHO) rated Delhi as the world’s most polluted city, ahead of Karachi, Peshawar, Xining and Beijing (yes, we’ve beaten China).
Yet, in the run-up to Delhi’s elections the quality of the city’s air was hardly the focus in the campaigns of the three political parties. The Congress’s manifesto chose to not even mention it; and the BJP’s vision document paid lip service to it. Those two documents may be inconsequential now. But AAP’s isn’t. Buried in its 70-point manifesto were its plans for “reducing pollution”: the Delhi Ridge would be protected from encroachment and deforestation; there would be incentives for low-emission fuels such as CNG and electricity; and a plan for a holistic transport policy, which includes the induction of 5,000 more buses, would encourage the use of mass transport systems.
The problem of pollution in India’s cities may be more serious than what governments — at the states and the Centre — acknowledge. Recently, The Economist reported that indoor and outdoor pollution together is the biggest cause of deaths in India, claiming 1.6 million lives annually and causing people to live three years less than they would have had national standards for pollution been met. In last year’s WHO rating, of the top 20 most polluted cities in the world, 13 were in India. Delhi tops the list, of course, but Patna, Gwalior, Raipur and Ahmedabad closely follow it. According to a report by TERI, the University of California, San Diego, and the California Air Resources Board, the transport sector contributes 15-50% of the PM2.5 emissions in Indian cities. Delhi, with its 7.5 million registered vehicles (of which just 2.5% is public transport vehicles such as buses, taxis and auto-rickshaws), is the most traffic-congested. And despite an apex court order that bans their entry, high-polluting trucks freely enter Delhi’s roads on their cross-country cargo-ferrying routes.
As mentioned in his party’s manifesto, Delhi’s new CM Arvind Kejriwal will likely attempt to get a more efficient mass transport system for commuters. But such things don’t happen overnight. A real impetus for something like that can come from the demand side by restricting the plying of private vehicles in the city, along with prohibitive increases in parking costs. Such measures may seem harsh but against the potential deathtraps that pollution could turn our cities into, it will be a small price to pay.
For Kejriwal, there could be another pressing reason to tackle pollution in the city that he has just won: politics. The most vulnerable to the risks of urban air pollution are the cities poorest — those who live in slums; and make a living by labouring manually outdoors; plying auto-rickshaws; or vending their fare on the streets — many of whom are the real aam aadmi who’ve reposed their faith in AAP.