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Is Delhi losing the battle against pollution? While there is no final answer to this question yet, figures indicate that the slide has begun. A comparative study of 178 countries on nine environmental parameters, conducted by Yale University, showed that levels of so-called PM 2.5, for the 2.5 micron size of the particulates, in Delhi are nearly five times the threshold in Delhi. In fact, the study said that Delhi, with 8.1 million registered vehicles, has been beating Beijing on particulate matter pollution quite regularly. The news from other parts of the country is not great either: outdoor air pollution caused 6.2 lakh premature deaths in India in 2010, which is a six-fold jump from the 1 lakh deaths in 2000. This makes polluted outdoor air the largest killer in India after high blood pressure, indoor air pollution, tobacco use, and poor nutrition.
Only a decade ago, Delhi had started to reverse the trend. It introduced low-sulphur fuels and petrol with 1% benzene, enforced Bharat Stage II emission standards, implemented the CNG programme and launched the largest-ever bus fleet on natural gas. It phased out 15-year-old commercial vehicles, strengthened the vehicle inspection programme and set up independent fuel testing labs. Things were going well but post 2007-2008, the momentum was lost, increasing the average levels of air pollution. In the winter of 2007-08, the smog returned and the deadly particles showed an upward curve. The reason, of course, is well known: an exponential increase in the number of vehicles. From 39.40 lakh vehicles in 2002-03, the number of cars, mainly diesel, has risen to 74.38 lakh in 2011-12, an 88% increase. One diesel car emits as much NOx as three to five petrol cars. Today in Delhi, 1,400 vehicles are added to the roads each day and contribute to more than 70% of air pollution.
Unlike Beijing, which is also a chart topper when it comes to air pollution, Delhi is not doing much to tackle this public health hazard. The city government needs to fix the number of cars on the road, implement strategies and tax policies to control the number of public cars and improve public transport — all these without any further delay.