There is a nip in the air even though winter is yet to arrive in full force in Delhi. The Capital, however, is choking with winter smog due to a heavier pollution load. The levels of respirable particulate matter (PM10) have surged 47% and nitrogen dioxide levels have increased 57%. The current levels of fine particulates are four to six times higher than the acceptable limit. Along with PM and nitrogen dioxide, there are also other killers in the air: carbon monoxide, ozone and benzene. Some of these pollutants come from vehicles, which are increasing uncontrollably by the day. Delhi alone adds 1,000 vehicles each day. The rising pollution also means that the city has lost the air quality gains it made after the introduction of CNG in public transport.
If this is the case of Delhi, the only one to introduce CNG on such a scale, think about the situation in other cities and second-tier towns where people are also buying vehicles at a frantic pace, partly due to rising incomes and partly due to lack of public transport. In 2007, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) generated air quality data for 121 second-tier cities. Only three — Dewas, Tirupati, Kozhikode — recorded low-pollution levels. The Centre for Science and Environment, a non-profit organisation, which analysed the data, says that Visakhapatnam, Hyderabad and Thiruvananthapuram are showing a rising pollution trend. The same holds true for Mumbai, Nagpur, Nashik, Pune and Chandrapur.
Other than the increasing number of vehicles and lack of viable public transport system, the subsidy on diesel, which is providing incentives for misuse (gensets) and a spurt in the sale of SUVs, is pushing up pollution, resulting in increased health costs for the people. The World Health Organisation says that diesel engine exhaust can cause cancer, especially lung cancer in humans. Along with technological and administrative measures, and aggressive policy-making, India must learn from other countries how to manage pollution. For example, in Paris, during high pollution periods, drivers are advised to postpone trips to the city or bypass it, use public transport or resort to car-pooling; other measures include minimising combustion of high sulphur fuels in industry and even curtailing industrial operations.