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Stop treating Delhi’s air woes as a seasonal issue

While GRAP was meant to be a year-long exercise to check polluting activities in Delhi even when the air is “moderately” clean, we have reduced it to a calendar event to be observed when winter pollution peaks.

delhi Updated: Nov 05, 2018 18:00 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
delhi air pollution,delhi's air quality,smog
A man wears a mask for protection from heavy smog in Delhi, November 5, 2018. (Vipin Kumar / HT Photo )

With festivities and a nip in the air, October was once the best month to be in Delhi. Today, of course, it is dreaded as the grim harbinger of the smog season.

Around the time we celebrate Dushera, the city sky turns soot grey, the air starts smelling of burnt paper and the spiralling air quality index becomes the top news headline. Despite the recent restrictions on firecrackers, many residents now leave Delhi to escape the Diwali blitzkrieg that smothers an already choking city.

Under Delhi’s Graded Response Action Plan to fight air pollution, mitigation measures range from spraying water on unpaved roads and penalising garbage burning to raising parking fees, halting construction work, shutting down polluting factories, power plants, and limiting cars on roads.

While GRAP was meant to be a year-long exercise to check polluting activities even when the air is “moderately” clean, we have reduced it to a calendar event to be observed when winter pollution peaks. But ad hoc firefighting after having stoked the fire round the year is not a winning strategy. To curb air pollution, Delhi must stop treating it as a seasonal problem.

Our business-as-usual creates enough pollution round the year to keep the baseline very high. During the non-winter months, Delhi gets by due to favourable weather conditions. But freak weather buildups can easily shatter that illusion of comfort. Remember the dust storm this summer that added to the city’s pollutants, pushing the AQI levels to the severe zone? Yet we wait for the winter to be reminded that Delhi has been waiting on the edge.

It is because our baseline pollution is so high that adverse winter conditions and seasonal factors such as stubble burning can so quickly push it to hazardous levels. Only because we freely pursue all kinds of polluting activities round the year that we feel so inconvenienced when asked to pause every winter. Because our systemic callousness has created a permanent air emergency, ritualistic breaks for a week or two achieve little more than cosmetic relief.

For example, how much respite can restrictions on cars provide when more cars than any other metro still ply on Delhi’s roads even during the famed odd-even rationing? Or what use are those tools-down phases at construction sites when uncovered building material and excavated soil dumps anyway keep blowing in the wind?

Look at China, arguably considered the world’s pollution capital. This August, residents of Beijing breathed the cleanest air in a decade, according to data gathered by the US Embassy in Beijing, thanks to the five-year action plan rolled out in 2013, Bloomberg reported.

By 2017, the Chinese capital had started four gas-fired power plants to replace outdated coal-powered ones, reported China Daily. Delhi shut down its most polluting Badarpur thermal power plant last month but, according to Centre for Science and Environment, many other such facilities in the national capital region will not be able to enforce stringent emission norms even by the next year.

Dust is a major pollutant but contractors in Delhi make no effort to keep construction sites clean and enforcement teams get active only after winter alerts are sounded. Travelling out of Beijing by train recently, I could see even the most distant construction sites in the hinterland covered with tarpaulin sheets and fine nets.

Like Delhi, Beijing also employs the odd-even car rationing scheme but it does more. The Chinese capital introduced a lottery system in 2011 where it imposes annual quotas on the issuing of new licence plates. The odds of winning fell from 6% in February 2011 to an all-time low of 0.2% this year, the Economist reported in April.

Restrictions on private cars could be enforced because Beijing has a robust public transport system comprising 25,000 public buses and more than 600 kilometres of mass rapid transit. In Delhi, the fleet size has shrunk to 5,443 and awaits fresh procurement.

China has gone to the extent of placing less emphasis on GDP growth to prioritise combating air pollution. Only last week, a Chinese environment ministry official told reporters in Beijing that China’s battle against toxic air pollution was becoming increasingly difficult but the government would not relent in its efforts even as the economy slowed.

Battling air pollution is neither cheap nor convenient. It cannot be fought with knee-jerk measures. Unless we acknowledge the iceberg that we help nourish round the year, making a big deal over fighting the tip every winter will not save Delhi.

First Published: Nov 05, 2018 12:54 IST