For clean air, Delhi must look beyond just man-made solutions
Cities belong to more than just human beings. To safeguard their future, adopt a biophysical understanding
As the smog around the National Capital Region (NCR) intensifies, so does despair. Over a thousand people protested against the life-threatening air pollution in Delhi recently. Both the protest, and the state of the air, are annual affairs. As the Air Quality Index (AQI) shot above 500 after Diwali, barbs were exchanged between Delhi and its neighbouring agrarian states of Punjab and Haryana, which burn crop stubble. The odd-even scheme for cars started from November 4. But at the end, it was strong winds blowing over Delhi after Diwali that brought the AQI down to 100 temporarily. It has once again shot up this week.
Despite Delhi being a metropolis, it is still severely affected by rural activities like farming. And despite the lofty nature of centralised politics, the climate is influenced by events in the hills. When it snows in Kashmir or Shimla, it often rains in Delhi. Air pollution is a Delhi poll issue, but is not tackled with the seriousness and severity it deserves. Yet, an ethnography of the city should not be drawn just through failed policy action.
After Diwali, many ecological changes have taken place, despite, and in spite of, our failure to control air pollution. Avenues and roundabouts are in blossom with trees like the silk floss with its luxurious flowers. From the Himalayas, the little Hume’s warbler has landed. Flycatchers are small birds that eat flies, and the brilliantly-blue Verditer Flycatcher has come to Delhi from Nepal and the Himalayan regions. From locked-down Kashmir, the Black Redstart is flitting about in Delhi.
While we are determined to see a city as a human construct, the fabric of cities is much more than what is man-made. It is the moisture in the air and scents of the season, it is the biophysical setting, as much the immediate inhabitable area as its surroundings. Delhi adjoins the Thar; Mumbai and Kolkata, the sea. These natural features have profound impacts on the climate and, ultimately, how people live their lives. For birds that migrate thousands of kilometres — or butterflies that migrate hundreds of kilometres downwards of the Himalayas — Delhi is an important refuge or pit stop.
Thus, natural workings should inform our understanding of the city. The Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) for air pollution is put in place only after a veritable air emergency is declared, and has an overwhelming reliance on technology. Directions by the Central Pollution Control Board make only passing references to nature-based solutions, including creating green buffers and water fountains. To draw a true ethnography of a great city like Delhi though, we need a biophysical understanding that is greater than the simplistic ambit of technology.
The first issue is that Delhi adjoins a desert, and a degradation towards a more desert-like state is a real possibility. The NCR needs to stop pretending it is Switzerland, and cease construction of glass-fronted buildings with easily-heated facades and inflated electricity bills.
Second, this dust bowl need trees more than they need us. Let’s look at pollution through the year, not just in winter. A 2016 IIT Kanpur study found that in the summer, a whopping 26% to 28% of particulate matter(PM) comes from soil and road dust. Trees absorb dust, and more surfaces need covering. Covering these surfaces with concrete would be a further folly. It would create more heat and add to the dust bowl effect. A government that looks to cut 16,000 trees for colony redevelopment loses its moral standing to talk about NCAP.
Third, we can’t blame our neighbours alone for crop burning — though that needs immediate government-led interventions to be tackled. An unacceptable amount of waste is also burned in Delhi, comprising 8% of pollution in both the summer and winter. Nature never has any waste; it is the greatest lesson in recycling. Leaves and organic matter need to be composted, and incinerators cannot be the only solution. Facilities to recycle or repurpose waste should be made on a war-footing.
Finally, if we take a bird’s eye view of the NCR, the city is still valued for Yamuna’s riverine tracts, where Brown-headed gulls from central Asia will visit in winter. Wetlands like Basai, which receive our waste, are also habitat for beautiful birds like the Black-necked Stork. These are water bodies that create buffers against dust and provide respite in congested spaces. Instead of building individual labyrinths of air purifiers, we need to prioritise restoration of natural settings of forests and wetlands as common spaces for more people.
A treescape, a riverscape and Aravalli hillscape have existed for years before us — and in writing the future of the city, they need to be tightly woven into urgent plans to save collective lives.
The structural injustice of air pollution asks for more than man-made solutions; and though the city is partially man-made, it belongs to more than just human beings.
Neha Sinha is with the Bombay Natural History Society.
The views expressed are personal