Cities & Architecture

The Road to Fixing Air Pollution in Delhi, Beyond Odd-even

What makes matters worse in Delhi are the incessant tide of migrants, misaligned institutional structures (unwisely split between the Centre and the quasi-state of Delhi), and BJP’s ongoing vendetta against AAP.

A view of Rashtrapati Bhavan enveloped in a blanket of smog, caused by a mixture of pollution and fog, in New Delhi in November 2012. Credit: PTI

A view of Rashtrapati Bhavan enveloped in a blanket of smog, caused by a mixture of pollution and fog, in New Delhi in November 2012. Credit: PTI

An unprecedented public health crisis has been unfolding in Delhi: 40% of our kids now fail lung capacity tests. Respiratory emergencies have tripled in the last seven years, with no relief in sight. Just breathing our air, full of toxic gases and particulates, has raised the incidence of strokes, heart disease, cancers, birth defects, pneumonia, and more. In Delhi alone, an estimated 80 people are dying daily from conditions provoked by air pollution. Much like smoking cigarettes, it’s shaving years off our lives.

Though some fare worse than others, none are immune: rich or poor, young or old. A high burden of disease erodes quality of life, family finances, and the economy. What will be the cost of this health crisis, in human lives, in healthcare, in lost productivity?

It’s a good thing the AAP government plans to build a thousand Mohalla clinics, because what’s unfolding is far bigger than last year’s dengue scare in Delhi. Though experts have long known these health effects of air pollution, years of apathy, ignorance, and denial—among both citizens and politicians—have led us here. So how serious are the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments about fixing this menace? How well do they understand the gravity of the situation?

Odd-even was a success but…

The AAP government, under pressure from the courts, announced several anti-pollution measures last December. Among these was the bold odd-even experiment, an emergency measure designed to temporarily reduce pollution. Going just by the 30 percent drop in fuel sales, there’s no doubt that the measure cut pollution. But its larger success lay in creating awareness of the problem, because awareness is a precursor for change. Odd-even also reduced congestion and commute times, and pushed many to discover car pooling and public transport. Compliance was high, proving that Delhiites can rise to the occasion in a show of civic sense that many thought impossible. Many who were skeptical are now praising the scheme. Some even want it back.

The AAP government wants to bring back odd-even this summer, when pollution levels are well below half that in winter. They are even consulting the people of Delhi on when, and for how long, to implement it. But this approach makes little sense for a decision that elsewhere in the world is rightly guided by pollution levels, not opinion polls. Odd-even is an emergency measure; it should be deployed only on the worst days of pollution as part of a larger emergency response that also shuts schools, certain industries, etc. If AAP’s primary intention here is to further raise public awareness of pollution, they should instead mobilise the sluggish bureaucracy they have inherited to work on other measures this summer – measures that will involve the public as well as bring about a lasting reduction in the sources of pollution.

Our major sources of pollution

Understanding the sources of our pollution is an essential first step for evidence-based action. However, a precise apportioning of pollution from each source remains an intractable challenge. That’s because pollution in Delhi, more than in first-world cities, depends on a highly diverse and shifting set of factors both in and outside Delhi. These include varied fuel types used by vehicles, businesses, and households; burning of crop residue and other biomass; waste burning; dust from exposed soil surfaces; construction practices; industries and power plants; traffic congestion; power outages and diesel generator sets (gensets); weather and season; the socioeconomics of a neighbourhood; and more.

Several scientific studies do exist to describe how much of our pollution comes from which source, but they arrive at different results owing to different assumptions, methodologies, and ideologies. No single study can be said to get it all “right”, including the much talked about recent study by IIT Kanpur (which remains mysteriously hidden; why isn’t it public yet?). The researcher must rely upon surveys to estimate how much of the diesel emissions in our air come from vehicles v. gensets v. mobile towers; how much of the biomass emissions come from cooking vs. waste burning vs. crop residue; how much of coal emissions come from brick kilns vs. industries vs. power plants; and so on. The truth is that source apportionment studies use the language of physical science but, given their hydra-headed object of study, inevitably differ in their findings. Interested parties then gravitate towards and promote the studies that confirm their biases and preconceptions.

Instead of obsessing over precision of source apportionment in a single study, which is a mirage, it’s more useful to consider all studies together in determining the top sources of pollution. Doing so reveals the following as the top three (especially when factoring in what people actually breathe, as opposed to the ambient pollution measured by air monitors): (1) Vehicular emissions, with a focus on diesel; (2) Burning of coal, wood, kerosene, waste, crop residue, and other biomass; (3) Dust from roads, exposed soil, and construction sites.

What should our governments do?

Delhi should learn from other cities around the world. Take the case of Mexico City, similar to Delhi in terms of demographics, geography, and the curse of wintertime inversion. In 1992, when Mexico City was declared the most polluted city in the world, it initiated a series of measures that led to much cleaner air within a decade. If they can do it, so can we! The work required is not mysterious and is, in fact, laid out for us. It’s much cheaper to reduce pollution than to deal with its human toll. Every bit of reduction is worth fighting for.

Below are the top seven areas in which our state and central governments must act collaboratively, with both local and regional initiatives. These initiatives will not only reduce pollution but will also go a long way in turning Delhi into the “world class city” that AAP promised.

  1. Increase public awareness of air pollution. Educate and inform people about what they can do to reduce air pollution. Put out public health messages on the metro, buses, billboards, and radio to help change public behaviour. Increase pollution monitoring stations. Issue daily advisories. Make pollution masks available in health clinics and promote them to the most vulnerable workers, such as traffic cops, auto drivers, street vendors, and municipal workers. Also raise awareness of indoor pollution.
  2. Raise and enforce emission standards. India is still on Bharat III and IV emission standards for our vehicles and fuels. This is 10-15 years behind the West, where vehicles spew one-tenth of our emissions or less. Why should we accept this? The same auto makers who operate under higher standards in the West supply inferior technology to us. Some of our refineries make Bharat VI fuel for export but not for us. There is no good reason why we shouldn’t mandate Bharat VI by 2017, perhaps starting with the NCR. Only industry lobbies stand in the way. As in California, we should also require automakers to sell a minimum percentage of electric vehicles in Delhi. Undertake a comprehensive audit of polluting industries in Delhi NCR; tighten and enforce emission norms.
  3. Improve public transportation and traffic management. Expand the fleet of CNG buses. Implement BRT the right way. Build, repair, and reclaim the sidewalks for pedestrians – not for parking and vending – so people can walk more often, including to nearby bus stops and metro stations. Augment last-mile options. Use better signage; promote and enforce driving rules and lane discipline to reduce congestion. Negotiate staggered office timings with large private employers. Create better urban traffic management on the roads to reduce congestion and related idling; reduce choke points. Augment car parking at metro stations across the NCR.
  4. Discourage vehicle use: Driving is not a right but a privilege; it has a social cost. Impose – as many countries do – an annual vehicle use fee. Penalise ownership of multiple cars in a household. Rethink and limit car parking in the city; raise the cost of parking and make some streets pedestrian-only; impose parking fines outside designated parking spaces. Promote cab-sharing, carpooling, and shuttle services. Create a network of safe bike paths. Create incentives and tax exemptions for hybrid and electric vehicles.
  5. Penalise big and non-compliant polluters. Like Beijing, ban the sale and registration of all new private diesel vehicles in Delhi. Provide 24×7 power across the NCR to minimise genset use; ban diesel gensets and promote CNG gensets. Spot-check fuel pumps for adulteration. Move coal-fired brick/pottery kilns out of the NCR. Ban wood and coal burning in restaurants; allow only electric and LPG equipment. Subsidise electric and CNG crematoriums. Spot-check emissions on commercial vehicles at the border; block vehicles that fail emission norms. Encourage citizens to report violators via a mobile app, similar to the anti-corruption hotline. Accelerate work on peripheral expressways. Work with other states to enforce the ban on farm fires in and beyond the NCR. Promote renewable energy and avoid building coal power plants near dense population zones in north India.
  6. Reduce road and construction dust. The problem of dust plagues the entire Indo-Gangetic plain. It can be mitigated by changing how our urban surface infrastructure is built. To start with, require covering of all exposed soil surfaces along roads with concrete or hardy vegetation in Delhi NCR and then start ‘vacuum sweeping’ of roads (not the other way around, which would be futile). Issue guidelines to regulate pollution at construction sites; notify and enforce regulations.
  7. Reduce domestic sources of pollution, improve waste management. According to the 2011 census, over ten percent of Delhi’s households still use biomass for cooking. Remove the address proof requirement for LPG purchases. Make LPG more affordable. Promote more efficient, less smoky chulha. Reduce the burning of biomass. Improve waste collection services, so there will be no trash or leaves left to burn. Ensure strict emission norms for waste-to-energy plants. Ban fire-crackers for all private and public events, and discourage their use during festivals.

Making it happen

What, then, are the obstacles to progress? Delhi has more financial resources than other metros and lots of expertise in its elite institutions. But Delhi, too, if perhaps less than its neighbours, displays the Indian State’s notoriously weak ability to implement policies and services on the ground. The best laid plans often fizzle out due to a culture that mixes apathy, absenteeism, corruption, and incompetence – a wider cultural problem. What makes matters worse in Delhi are the incessant tide of migrants, misaligned institutional structures (unwisely split between the Centre and the quasi-state of Delhi), and the BJP’s ongoing vendetta against the AAP.

Citizens certainly need to do their part to help reduce air pollution through their daily actions. Our lack of civic sense and responsibility is legendary, and it needs to be raised via concerted public service messages and school education, as well as well-designed incentives and penalties. But that won’t be enough. What will it take to get our state and central governments to also tackle the big ticket items like emission standards, public transport, waste management, biomass burning, and dust reduction?

As with the switch to CNG 15 years ago, much of the recent activism on air pollution has emerged from our courts. Behind this lies the sad reality of disempowered pollution control boards, unmotivated bureaucracies, and politicians unwilling to prioritise measures unless they seem electorally important. But while Public Interest Litigation may be a useful tactic, it’s neither enough, nor a sustainable strategy. In a democracy, there’s no substitute for a critical mass of informed citizens. Clean air will not become the government’s priority unless citizens make it their priority. Citizen and media pressure is central to this change. We need to mobilise and have our voices heard through various citizen-led initiatives, such as “Help Delhi Breathe”. Let’s rise, agitate, and reclaim our right to clean air.

Namit Arora is a member of the Delhi Dialogue Commission, an advisory body to the Government of NCT of Delhi. Most recently, he led the drafting of Delhi’s Solar Energy Policy and is now working on the problem of air pollution.

  • Amol Thore

    Where we have ministries named like Ministry for Human
    Resource Development instead of Ministry for Human Development, one can’t but wonder
    are we a country or are we a corporate? It feels like I was born so someone
    could turn a profit. I mean, is there anything more important than our living
    lives? If 40% are failing lung capacity tests n 80 people are dying every day shouldn’t
    we be thinking about shifting the capital itself out for those winter days?
    Shouldn’t we go to that scale? And if we are really concerned about our lives
    to that level, odd-even is not even on that road to recovery. Odd-even is blind

    Only, where all this while it felt like the BjP had all the
    ammo and the guns n AAP was an unarmed cat in the corner, odd-even showed even
    AAP cud wield a knife. And it shows so well, between this Prince at the centre
    wanting to do a Make a Beijing in India and the Pauper in Delhi using his seal
    to break the nuts n save half the smoke for tomorrow, we have a rapid reader
    for main curriculum.

    Nevertheless, the article quietly well – n also the way it
    lays the foundation for productive outcomes – creates more awareness than odd
    even. If the drivers, during these days, found the traffic more fluent and less
    choking they must have got a feeling that this rampage can jolly well continue
    as is, everyday. It wud’ve been more productive had they got a whiff of what
    the regulars at public transport got due to the sudden increase in the no. of commuters.
    In the need to drive the sense that driving is a privilege we shouldn’t make it
    a privilege of the few.

    On one side we are crossing Mach 25 and on the other we have
    had absolutely no research/ progress on pollution and waste management. Make in
    India! Swell! But excrete your toxins where?

    Even when we bring GMO, we think mustard, I dunno why it is
    mustard, but why didn’t we think about GMO grass? That could spread like weed,
    survive on little water, cover all the waste lands and even if it dries in
    summers it still holds onto loose soil and resurrects in monsoon again.
    Instead, we keep talking about ease of business, free markets n such. We can’t
    depend on the corporate, yes, but it seems we can’t depend on the governments either.

    N when we think about development, we don’t say let’s get
    smarter as a country we say let’s be smarter in these cities. We don’t say let’s
    talk about water management or energy or health so everybody can benefit, we
    say let’s look at these few cities n what they need. N come up with solutions
    like staggered timings. Isnt it time our cities themselves scatter? Why should Delhi/
    a few cities grow at the cost of the country? It seems pollution is a result of
    a part of the population over-living at the cost of others. Isn’t it time we
    stop thinking how cities cud grow and accommodate migration and start thinking how
    development itself could migrate across the country?

    It’s a sad state that when we are so clambering for
    decisions we have to start from scratch even for data, even in a planned city
    like Delhi. Even so, Fuel consumption comes handy as an indicator, it cud be further
    drilled down to the level of veh category. We can track goods carriers,
    commercial passenger carrying, MPV SUVs, private cars, bikes separately as they
    fuel up at different terminals.

    Maybe there are inefficiencies to improve in goods transport.

    Some other suggestions for the wallowing in denial J

    Drive high occupancy travel make it a regular feature

    Use flexible lanes where traffic peaks in one direction

    Promote Roof Top Solar to replace diesel gensets

    Promote solar at large agri setups n divert their electricity

  • Swarnalatha R

    Excellent write-up. Wonder if the government will be able to keep a tab on number of vehicles that get registered in the next couple of months, before the next odd-even schedule.

  • forsanity

    The biggest problem we have is not that there are no solutions to these problems especially that of pollution. Many countries have successfully combated them. Both the know-how and research exists. The bigger problem is the trust deficit of the government. Our people do not trust our governments. Therefore, no government can come up with a comprehensive scheme of steps that is focused on the long term with an aim to bring improvements over time. So, they go for flashy short-cut ideas to survive the day. So, with every plan we adopt we take two steps forward and then later do something else to take two steps back because every scheme will result in pain for some one or the other. In such a situation, for a comprehensive solution to emerge, either we need a trust worthy government or we need to hit a crisis when anything we do becomes acceptable. I tend to think that the latter has a higher possibility of happening than the former.