The Pulse | Environment | South Asia

Choked: Where Is New Delhi’s Response to Air Pollution?

Each year, Delhi spends the winter choked in dangerous smog. So why is the scale of the problem not matched by a desperate, crisis-mode policy response?

Choked: Where Is New Delhi’s Response to Air Pollution?
Credit: Depositphotos

Summer has arrived in earnest, and Delhi breathes again.

As the city – along with northern India and most of the subcontinent – gears up for another record-breaking heatwave, another yearly environmental crisis recedes into the background: air pollution. Every winter, Delhi endures a brutal four months from October to January – smoke, smog, and dust are suspended in the air, schools and workplaces close, and Delhiites breathe the most polluted air in the world. The Air Quality Index (AQI) readings regularly cross 10 times the WHO-defined “safe” limit of 60 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 particles (pollutant particles under 2.5 micrometers or less). The city is caught under a blanket of smoke and dust, which in the colder winter months – November, December, and January – mingle with Delhi’s characteristic winter fog to create a suffocating smog.

The scale of the crisis is unprecedented. Delhi is a city of 16.78 million people, per data from the 2011 Census (the 2021 Census has been postponed indefinitely; the population of Delhi is almost certainly exponentially higher today). It is also, for an extended period, the most polluted city on the planet, and the most polluted capital city by a comfortable margin.

In addition to the dystopian surroundings, air pollution brings with it a policy crisis of cataclysmic proportions, affecting health, productivity, and economy. By some estimates, Delhi saw 54,000 premature deaths due to air pollution in 2020, part of a staggering figure of 1.67 million for the country overall. Schools shut or prohibit outdoor activities, and 2022 saw multiple closures due to cold wave conditions, the Omicron COVID-19 surge, and air pollution.

The scale of the crisis is easy to see – literally. Delhi’s sky is a dirty off-white or grey during the day, and dust particles are visibly suspended in the air. Coughing and spluttering dominates the human soundscape, and houses gather a fine layer of dust each day. Air purifiers, facing pollution that they are scarcely equipped to handle, permanently display the color red. Air quality readings are the subject of sarcastic household banter, supported by the evidence: The monthly average AQI levels stayed above 200 for eight months in 2022, heralded as a success by the government.

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This has all the ingredients of a policy emergency and a priority. Air pollution has hazardous health consequences. It is a visible, physically damaging threat. Its sources and components are known: vehicular and industrial pollution, crop stubble-burning in neighboring states, and unusually conducive weather phenomena. The timeline is well-defined, and some best practices are put into place per the Supreme Court’s Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP). The problem is measurable, although health consequences are less easy to trace. It afflicts the capital city and an entire swathe of North India, where the nation’s most powerful politicians congregate at Parliament.

So why is the scale of the problem not matched by a desperate, crisis-mode policy response? Why aren’t out-of-the-box solutions being considered, and why is a response so difficult to implement?

Despite the seeming inexplicability of the paradox, there are reasons why Delhi confronts the same apathy each year. The issue is multipronged and exceedingly complex, but at least three common dynamics might be at play.

First, air pollution is a problem with innumerable moving parts that requires vigilance, coordination, and impeccable policy implementation. These are difficult to achieve. To tackle northern India’s winter nightmare, multiple states need to coordinate on setting stringent emissions norms, ban stubble burning completely, and maintain harmonized standards on pollutants such as vehicular traffic, polluting industries, and the use of polluting fuels, both within homes (such as burning firewood) and outside of it (such as diesel vehicles). This requires working down the policy chain.

Ensuring that stubble burning is kept under control is just one example of the multipronged policy challenge India faces in the winter. Stubble burning is a common practice because of a short turnaround time between India’s two cropping seasons, Rabi and Kharif. Once cropping timelines and practices become entrenched, they can be exceedingly difficult to reorient. To achieve this reorientation across northern India’s most agriculturally productive states – Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh – is a mammoth task. Attempts at alternate forms of waste disposal – notably the Pusa Decomposer, which rapidly decomposes crop residue – have seen limited success.

Stubble burning is far from the only pollutant, and far from the only policy issue. A second challenge is economic. It’s hard to seriously restrict vehicular traffic and industrial activity if people need to get to work and earn an income. Delhi’s public transport systems are excellent, but the city is not perfectly connected, and is home to an outlandish 13 million vehicles, of which nearly half, despite being deregistered, are “invalid” or unfit to ply on city roads. Although the COVID-19 pandemic made the work-from-home setup far more palatable and commonplace, vehicular traffic cannot be entirely stopped. A partial attempt, such as the 2016 “Odd-Even” scheme that permitted vehicular traffic based on license plate numbers, only marginally reduced pollution. Moreover, the problem is vastly exacerbated by weather conditions, which trap pollutants and dust close to the ground. Delhi’s disproportionate vehicular emissions have been a major part of the pollution problem for years, and although incentives such as Delhi’s Electric Vehicle Policy have set ambitious targets, uptake will require time.

The scale of the problem also goes well beyond just cleaner transportation, because it afflicts the city and the entire surrounding region, home to large, difficult-to-monitor states that are industrial and agricultural powerhouses. Construction, manufacturing, and agriculture lie at the heart of Delhi’s growth story, and it is infeasible to totally shut down or accurately monitor polluting industries. This means that restrictions can apply, but that the standards are warped. For example, a full ban on any non-essential Construction & Demolition (C&D) project is only active once the AQI crosses 400 per the GRAP.

A third challenge is the question of vulnerability. Who is vulnerable to air pollution? The levels in question here don’t just affect the very young and the old, or those with comorbidities. Air pollution of this severity affects everyone. Yet it is seen as something of an ambient threat – a fact of life for those winter months. Because people – as they always do – make do, the urgency dissipates. A new, unknown crisis like COVID-19 was targeted far more efficiently because of its novelty and danger. Air pollution is now an accepted part of life, and because it is those with existing comorbidities or respiratory vulnerabilities that display the severest bodily responses, the general population remains apathetic.

Of course, this is a generalization, and the data suggests that the health crisis is extreme and widespread. But because it doesn’t fill up hospitals and represent an unknown in quite the way that COVID-19 did, air pollution is something many locals are resigned to “deal with.” This is evidently an extreme case of cognitive dissonance, but it would take something extreme to live with the sort of pollution Delhi sees yearly. Delhiites are indignant at air pollution, but other national and regional political debates tend to swallow up both popular perception and the news cycle, leaving air pollution behind as a begrudgingly accepted constant. Simply put, air pollution is a “slow” killer in the public conception, although the evidence is glaringly to the contrary. Delhi’s residents lose 10 years in life expectancy due to pollution.

The nature of political debate is such that disagreements and drama gain prominence. Delhi is ensconced in a constant battle between the state and central government. As the national capital, it is often the crucible of national political debates, and the city’s attention is pulled in hundreds of different directions. Unquestionably, however, the city’s single greatest policy crisis is its air pollution. Paradoxically, everyone – policymakers, politicians, citizens, bureaucrats – accepts the pollution as a constant. In fact, it’s the only thing that everyone agrees cannot be tackled! Isolated periods of citizen pressure pass quickly, and with summer, the immediacy of the crisis fades away, making way for the next year.

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The truth is that Delhi’s pollution crisis demands solutions that lie well beyond our current spectrum of thinking. It’s an unprecedented problem that requires unprecedented solutions. Most importantly, it needs time, focused attention, and innovation – all of which are in short supply in Delhi’s chaotic political climate. So Delhi makes do, in its famously industrious way, and the country’s most dangerous public health crisis remains unresolved, year after year.