New Delhi: In November last year, a survey of over 2,000 voters in Delhi conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) found that 45% of them considered air pollution to be the biggest problem facing the national capital. About 10% of those surveyed said that when they vote, they will have the air pollution crisis in mind. The survey was conducted between the end of November and early December – when air pollution levels are at their worst and when it is a starkly visible problem.
Leading up to Delhi’s state elections, however, air pollution has not been key on the agenda of political parties. A ground report by IndiaSpend suggests that it may also have slipped off the voters’ agenda as well.
But, air quality is a key problem that needs solving. And contrary to perception, air quality is not just an early winter problem but a year-round one.
In the past seven years, air quality in India’s capital has averaged 224 on the air quality index – which is almost 350% higher than the safe standards prescribed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and 124% higher than the limit prescribed by the Indian government.
A study found that air pollution accounts for between 10,000 and 30,000 deaths annually in Delhi. The ministry of environment, forests and climate change has said that respiratory disorders accounted for 9,149 deaths in 2016, up from 5,516 two years ago. In addition, air pollution also increases the risk of cardio-vascular diseases and can cause irreversible damage to the lungs of children.
Consequently, Delhi’s United Residents’ Joint Action (URJA) released a ‘green manifesto’ as elections were announced and demanded that candidates outline their plans to combat air pollution. The residents’ group has demanded that air pollution be reduced by 65% by 2025.
The key factors contributing to Delhi’s air pollution through the year are local – and not crop burning in Punjab and Haryana, which takes up a sizeable role only for a few weeks in October and November.
Transport contributes between 18 and 39% and road dust contributes between 18 and 38%, while industries contribute between 2 and 29%, the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) summarised after analysing various studies on the subject. The variations are due to changing seasons and the different sampling areas and methodologies of the studies that were analysed.
Let’s take a look at how the three key parties – Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress – say they will deal with these sources of pollutants if they are voted to power in Delhi.
In order to increase the use of public transport, the AAP has promised that it will extend Delhi’s metro network to 500 kilometres from the existing 389 kilometres. To make public transport affordable for half the population, it has promised that it will continue with the policy of free bus rides for women.
In Arvind Kejriwal’s 10 point guarantee card, the AAP has also promised ‘11,000 plus buses’ and free rides for students in addition to women. In 2019, the Delhi government released its electric vehicle policy with the aim that electric vehicles are 25% of all new vehicle registration by 2024. This is to be achieved by providing rebates to facilitate the transition from conventional to electric vehicles and by waiving off tax and registration on electric vehicles.
The BJP has promised that it will increase the existing fleet of buses by 10,000 and expedite the completion of under construction metro lines. It has also promised that it will review the bus routes and provide better feeder services to metro stations through e-rickshaws and auto rickshaws. It has also promised that it will incentivise the use of electric vehicles and set up charging stations.
The saffron party has also promised that it will incentivise the use of electric vehicles without clearly specifying how.
The Congress has outlined a detailed road map in its manifesto which promises that public transport will be developed to ‘seamlessly’ carry 80% of the population at affordable prices. It has also said that it will ensure that every residential and commercial area is within walking distance of public transport or has the option of on-call e-rickshaw for last mile connectivity.
The party has said that it will set up a unified metropolitan authority, as demanded by URJA, for better coordinated planning between different modes of transport. It will also procure 15,000 new electric buses, if voted to power, and set up government-committees to periodically review the quality and utility of public transport.
The party has promised to earmark Rs 1,100 crore for Delhi’s electric vehicle policy to help commuters transition from petrol/diesel vehicles to electric vehicles. It aims that 50% of all vehicle registrations by 2025 will be electric and has promised that all new government vehicles purchased after 2021 will be electric.
The AAP has only promised that it will plant 2 crore trees. It has stayed clear of promising any regulation of construction activity – a major contributor to dust in the city – or efforts to conserve Delhi’s forests.
The BJP, on the other hand, has promised to conserve forests, ridge areas and increase forest cover. It has also said that it will implement mechanised sweeping and water sprinkling to temporarily suppress dust. The party has also not promised any measures to control construction activity.
The Congress’s manifesto once again contains the most progressive steps. It has promised to bring in a legislation that will make felling of trees for infrastructure projects illegal. The Congress has also said that it will plant 50 lakh trees every year with quarterly monitoring with the aim of increasing green cover to 30% of Delhi’s area.
It will build, conserve and rejuvenate forests and ensure that dug up spaces are always covered. The party has promised that the government will create digital map of areas with harmful dust and manage a work plan.
But the Congress too has ignored the need to regulate construction activity.
Thermal power stations around Delhi are a major source of industrial pollution and have missed deadlines to curb emissions. But, all three political parties have failed to promise that they will curb emissions from these industries with a view to raise the air quality in Delhi.