Delhi’s Pollution Crisis Is a Product of State Apathy and Ignorant Policy

The government is either unwilling or incapable of implementing effective policies to tackle the current pollution crisis.

On 2 and 3 November, the air quality index (AQI) of Delhi, which measures the level of hazardous particles and gases in the atmosphere, crossed 1,000 in certain parts of the national capital territory. An AQI above 300 is considered hazardous, and can lead to a host of respiratory ailments. Further, particulate matter (PM) of less than 2.5 and 10 micrometres (PM 2.5 and PM 10 respectively), which gets deposited in the lungs and causes cardiovascular diseases, has increased exponentially in the city air. The Supreme Court (SC), in response to the pollution levels, has registered a case suo motu against the union of India in an effort to find solutions to the pollution problem. A bench consisting of Justices Arun Mishra and Deepak Gupta  criticised the government for not taking cognisance of the issue, and for “letting people die.”  

However, the capital’s pollution woes are not new. In 2018, Gurugram, which comes under the Delhi-NCR territory, was the world’s most polluted city, and Delhi the most polluted capital in the world. Efforts to stem air pollution have not yielded success. Public transport no longer runs on diesel—the SC in 1998 ruled that all public vehicles had to be fitted with CNG—and more recently, the Delhi government in 2016 introduced the odd–even scheme for private transport in an effort to improve air quality. Moreover, despite a court order, farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh continue to burn stubble to prepare for the sowing season. Government intervention to provide economic alternatives to farmers is also absent. Schemes to improve crop residue management are yet to be implemented.

As this reading list explains, efforts to combat pollution are either too little or too late, flawed in design, or ignorant of major pollutants. Policy is designed as a reaction to public outcry, and without a vision towards a pollution–free city.

1) Stemming Vehicular Pollution

In 2002, Delhi’s public transport system underwent an overhaul—public vehicles were mandated to convert to compressed natural gas (CNG). Vinish Kathuria writes that while CNG is a clean burning alternative to diesel, the change has not had a desirable effect on ambient air quality. While carbon emissions have reduced, suspended particulate matter (SPM), and oxides of nitrogen are still prevalent (and increasing) in the atmosphere.

The paper also looks into whether CNG conversion has affected the pollution profile. In order to carry out the analysis … NOx has risen after the conversion whereas SPM and PM10 have shown only marginal fall. The only parameter that has shown a significant decline is CO. Based on the results, one can say that conferring of the clean city award just on the basis of conversion to CNG was not enough and warranted a broader look into the problem. In fact, as the situation exists, Delhi is not at all moving towards the CPCB definition of ‘clean air’ (i e, achieving ambient air pollution levels that are 50 per cent of the standards set for each pollutant round the year) except for SO2.

2) The Odd–Even Rule Cannot Make Delhi’s Air Breathable

Rahul Goel and Pallavi Pant write that schemes such as the odd–even rule only reduce congestion on roads, and do little to reduce PM in the air. Industry, coal combustion, road dust, construction, and waste incineration, among others, are major sources of PM in the air. The authors argue that a flawed approach to PM mitigation, which involves solely focusing on the transport sector, is in fact encouraging a higher usage of private transport. 

Apart from the transport sector, major sources include industries (10%–51%), ­resi­dential emissions (5%–27%), coal-fired power plants (4%), brick kilns ­(1%–73%), construction (1%–13%), solid waste combustion (5%–11%) and dust (2%–12%) across different parts of Delhi (Sahu et al 2011; Guttikunda and Calori 2013). Additionally, diesel generator sets have also been identified as a possible source of PM2.5 in Delhi (Guttikunda and Calori 2013).

Further, Goel and Pant argue that there are larger sources of air pollution that need to be checked. Private vehicles in Delhi contribute to only 5% of PM 2.5 levels.

In other words, if all the passenger vehicles within Delhi stop operating, PM2.5 levels will reduce by an average of 8%, and the ­remaining 17% is contributed by freight vehicles …  PM2.5, however, is only one class of the pollutants emitted from vehicles. Gaseous pollutants, especially nitrogen oxides (NOx, NO, and NO2) also pose a significant threat to human health, but the public discourse has largely ignored the role of these pollutants. Future policy action on air pollution control needs to address both particles and gases that can contribute to poor air quality. Another aspect to consider is the composition of particulate matter, which plays an important role in health effects. Some studies suggest that although low emission zones may not reduce overall PM concentrations significantly, they can lower concentrations of certain toxic components of PM.

3) Pollution from Waste Accumulation Is Ignored

Writing in 2017, Prahiba Sharma argues that unregulated trash burning across Delhi is the new normal. Sharma contends that burning waste contributes between 20% and 30% of air pollution in Delhi. Further, 95% of emissions from landfills is methane (which is highly flammable) and carbon dioxide. Despite this, Sharma writes that policy to regulate waste in Delhi is lacking. 

The situation in Delhi is a timely warning to transform our centralised waste disposal infrastructure to a sustainable decentralised system. Delhi generates a whopping 9,500 tonnes of waste per day, making it India’s second most wasteful city—directly related to increasing wealth and consumption. It is estimated that waste management through landfills and biomass burning is the second biggest anthropogenic source of climate damaging methane gas (CH4) after coal mining (Jardine et al 2009) … Despite such alarming conditions, the five municipal bodies continue to use the three sites for illegal disposal of waste in the absence of any alternatives. Incineration, which is being proposed as a stop-gap alternative, is in fact an even bigger systemic worry.   

4) Alternatives to Stubble Burning

Even though crop burning is banned, it continues largely unchecked. Sucha Singh Gill writes that farmers are willing to pay a fine and burn stubble, as the alternatives, such as the use of Happy Seeder machines or mulching processes, require investments that are beyond their reach. Gill writes that farmers are willing to forego paddy burning if they can be remunerated for their effort in converting it into biofuel, but confused government policy and vested interests means that such initiatives may not come to fruition.

The amount for providing subsidy, for the purchase of agricultural machinery to retain crop straw as mulch or to be incorporated into soil for maintaining soil productivity and fertility, is to be spent within two years, or else it would lapse. This incentive/subsidy is meant to discourage the farmers from collecting the straw for disposal to bio-CNG plants. In fact, two lobbies have become active in the state/region. The first lobby consists of producers and dealers of agricultural machinery for mulching straw in soil. This lobby has considerable support from the state agricultural department of Punjab and agricultural extension experts. The second lobby consists of investors and potential investors in bio-CNG and ethanol. They are pulling the policy in opposite directions. The state governments in the region are declaring themselves to be neutral, but are bound by the union government’s budgetary provision of Rs 1,151 crore support for agricultural machinery subsidy for mulching of crop residue in the soil. In practice, the officials in agricultural departments are required to use this amount for purchase of requisite machinery by the farmers. As usual, the agricultural subsidy would land in the pocket of machinery producers and distributors.

Rajinder Chaudhary instead argues that crop residue need not be taken off the farm. Although still in a minority, Chaudhary writes that there are an increasing number of organic farmers in the Punjab-Haryana belt who are using paddy and wheat residue either as cattle feed, mulch, or can be used in compost. While this may come at an additional cost, Chaudhary says that it is worth the investment. 

While off-farm usage of agricultural residue does take care of air pollution and prevents the killing of microbial life, it takes away valuable farm nutrients, which will then have to be externally supplied. Off-farm usage of agricultural-residue can only be the second best option; a better option is to recycle it on the farm … punitive measures work for exceptional behaviour, but if this behaviour is widespread, punitive measures should be the last option. Education and “nudging” towards desirable behaviour through a suitable policy regime should be given priority. Simultaneously, while the state must facilitate and even sub­sidise on-farm usage of crop residue, farmers’ organisations must also realise that crop residue burning is not just an external hazard and pollution issue, but also an internal hazard that burns holes in farm economics. Farm residue can instead be easily managed with a little effort and innovation. 

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