Each year, the air in Delhi becomes unbreathable in the winter. Each year, the Supreme Court steps in to demand action. And each year, big plans are announced. And yet, here we are again.
Researched by: Sara Varghese
How bad is it this year?
On the day after Diwali, Delhi was worse than previous years. The air quality index (AQI) hit 462—compared to 435 in 2020, 368 in 2019 and 390 in 2018. To be fair, it hasn’t reached absurdly high levels of 2019—when air quality monitors in some parts of the city were stuck at 999.
But on the Supreme Court’s directive, authorities finally sprung into action yesterday, ordering the following:
Shutdown of all schools in the Delhi National Capital Region.
Restrictions on entry of trucks into NCR, except those carrying essential goods, until Sunday.
50% of the staff at public and private organisations have to work from home until November 21.
A ban on all construction activities—except those involving the railways, metro, airports etc.—until Sunday.
FYI: The Air Quality Index measures the level of pollution on an hourly, daily and annual basis. According to global measures—on a range from 0 to 500—an AQI above 300 is ‘hazardous’. There are no other designations for the insane heights that are routinely charted in our part of the world. But in India, we have categories for higher levels—where anything between 301 and 400 is ‘very poor’, and 401 and 500 is ‘severe’.
Big data point to note: According to Lancet, air pollution accounted for 1.67 million deaths in India in 2019. So air pollution is way more deadly than Covid—and yet we have done far less to combat it.
Remind me why this is happening?
The reasons remain depressingly the same each year—with minor variations. Let’s start with stubble burning. Every year, farmers burn the dried stalks of rice crops to make room for the cultivation of wheat. The smoke spreads from Punjab and Haryana to Delhi where it mingles with the winter fog to create a toxic smog—which hangs over the city with no winds to dissipate it. This year the effects were exacerbated by the delayed retreat of the monsoon—which meant stubble burning coincided with Diwali firecrackers.
The underlying culprit: The mechanisation of agriculture:
Farmers today use combine harvesters—machines that combine the jobs of cutting and threshing the crop but leave tall and sharp stubble behind.
They typically have 14 days to get rid of this stubble and plant the next season’s crops. The harvesters are cheaper and faster than manual labour.
Farmers can use “happy seeders” which plant wheat seeds with the stubble still in place—or others that chop and spread the stubble into the soil.
Although there are 76,000 such machines, farmers don’t use them due to the high costs of the machine and of diesel required to run them: “A farmer has to choose between spending more than Rs 6,500 per hectare for in-situ straw management or a matchstick.”
Key data to note: When asked by the Supreme Court, the government submitted data that shows stubble burning is only responsible for 10% of air pollution. But that was on November 15. The government failed to mention that just a week earlier, that number was as high as 48%. In the first two weeks of November, Haryana and Punjab recorded 57,000 farm fires—the highest since 2012.
So it’s the farmers’ fault?
Oh no, when it comes to Delhi pollution, there are plenty of other culprits:
Construction. The colossal and continuing sprawl of cities is fueled by a relentless pace of construction. All that dust flies up into the air and stays right there—contributing to 30% of the pollution.
Vehicles contribute to 80% of nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide in Delhi’s air—and are responsible for 41% of the total pollution load. The total number of motor vehicles was 10.986 million as of 31 March 2018.
Yes, we can blame the trucks all we want, but one big factor is the growing ubiquity of taxi services like Ola and Uber. Point to note: Delhi adds 537 cars and 1,158 two-wheelers every day.
Burning industrial waste. Scrap yards are a leading cause for toxic fumes, sparking angry protests in Mayapuri in 2018. Delhi has the highest cluster of small-scale industries in India—with 3,182 industries located across the NCR region. They contribute 18.6% to poor air quality throughout the year.
“The top four contributors to PM10 emissions are road dust (56%), concrete batching (10%), industrial point sources (10%) and vehicles (9%); these are based on annual emissions…The top four contributors to PM2.5 emissions are road dust (38 %), vehicles (20 %), domestic fuel burning (12 %) and industrial point sources (11%).”
FYI: PM stands for Particulate Matter, and the measurements—typically 2.5 or 10—refer to the size, i.e. less than 2.5 micrometres or less than 10 micrometres. Smaller the particles, and more prolonged the exposure, the more hazardous they are to human health.
As for fireworks: A 2018 study found that there is a “small but statistically significant” effect from Diwali fireworks—and that there were increases in concentrations of PM2.5 of almost 40% by the second day of the festival.
The curse of geography: The most critical factor that impacts air quality is the speed and direction of wind. Cities like Mumbai and Chennai have a built-in reset button thanks to coastal winds. Delhi, OTOH, is landlocked, and sits on a flat plain blocked off by the Himalayas. When northwesterly winds blow in—carrying dust, soot etc from Thar desert or even the Middle East—they are effectively ‘trapped’ in a bowl that extends from Punjab in the west to West Bengal in the east. More importantly, there is hardly any wind speed in Delhi during the winter—which also keeps the smog in place.
The cold winter air: For all the fuss over Diwali, air pollution spikes in December—when the temperature drops to between 1-3°C. Cold air and fog slow the dispersal of pollutants—and traps them close to the ground.
Why isn’t the government doing anything?
There are two flagship programs in place to combat pollution: Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) and National Clean Air Program (NCAP). Here’s why neither have worked.
GRAP: was launched in 2017 due to a Supreme Court mandate. It basically lays out what actions must be taken when air pollution levels rise. For example, banning entry of trucks in Delhi if air pollution reaches an “emergency” level.
As ORF notes, its implementation has been erratic—and public officials typically scramble to act when pollution levels are already high… like right now. In a more detailed critique, The Morning Context notes that GRAP fails due to three key reasons:
It focuses on the winter although air quality in Delhi remains poor all throughout the year.
Also this: “GRAP only concerns measures to be taken to control two pollutants—PM2.5 and PM10—but ignores the six other pollutants listed in India’s Air Quality Index.”
And this: “It is practically impossible to implement many of the action points suggested in the GRAP since they are not grounded in reality—such as a sudden increase in the public transport system, raising the parking fee or shutdown of thermal power plants, etc.”
NCAP: In 2019, the government launched this five-year national plan to cut pollution across 132 cities—which don’t meet the national air quality standard. The aim: to reduce PM2.5 levels by 20-30% by 2024. The program has released Rs 3.75 billion (375 crore) to 114 such cities—but it did not include Delhi as of December 2020. Even so, most cities remain woefully unprepared and underfunded, as a Scroll investigation found:
“[T]he plans of the National Clean Air Programme remain largely on paper. The implementing agencies—state pollution control boards and urban local bodies—typically do not have the capacity to undertake mandated actions; action plans created are often unrealistic, and are copy-paste jobs.”
And this despite the government doling out an extra Rs 44.17 billion (4,417 crore) to cities with a population over one million in 2019.
The bottomline: As always, we are great at planning, and crap at execution. It would be a great punchline to an ‘only in India’ joke if millions of lives weren’t at stake.
ORF does a great job of detailing the causes of pollution in Delhi. BBC News assesses the impact of stubble burning—while Mint and Indian Express look at why stubble burning is hard to ban. Hindustan Times has a good explainer charting the spikes of year-long pollution in Delhi—and its causes. Read The Morning Context (sign up required) for a critique on GRAP, while Scroll tackles NCAP. Also in Scroll: An eye opening takedown of the much-hyped smog towers in Delhi.
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