New Delhi: In 2021, Delhi was the fourth most polluted city in the world, reported IQAir, a real-time air quality information platform. In the same year, the annual average PM2.5 concentration in Delhi was at 96.4 μg/m³ against the WHO recommendation of 5 μg/m³. To put numbers in context, Air Quality Life Index 2022 noted that air pollution shortens lives by almost 10 years in Delhi, the most polluted city in the world.
What Contributes To Delhi’s Air That Makes It Toxic?
Tanushree Ganguly, Programme Lead, Air Quality at Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), a not-for-profit policy research institution said,
Air quality is basically defined by the concentration of different pollutants which includes particulate matter, Nitrogen oxide, Sulphur oxide, and Ammonia, among others, in the atmosphere. Whereas, the air quality index (AQI) is the metric that is used to communicate about air quality. It is basically a scale that tells you about the severity of air pollution. When we talk about the source, we talk about the sources which are actually contributing to air pollution in a particular region. Delhi is in that unfortunate position where it is impacted by both local sources which are basically within Delhi city limits as well sources which are outside Delhi city limits.
Ms Ganguly said that sources within Delhi city limits are primarily vehicles. She said,
Vehicles, of course, are the primary contributor followed by road dust, open waste burning and a few small-scale industries located in Delhi and its vicinity. Sources outside Delhi city limits include stubble burning which is a seasonal contributor but other than that there is some amount of influence which comes from industries outside Delhi, brick kilns, as well as the thermal power plants
Talking more about vehicular pollution, the biggest source of air pollution, Ms Ganguly called it an “extremely peculiar” problem. She said,
It is one of those sources which emits right at the breathing level so people tend to get a little more exposed to it. Also, with vehicles moving, it also results in the upliftment of dust from the road. Vehicles are indirectly contributing to road dust as well as tailpipe emissions.
To cut down emissions from vehicles, Ms Ganguly suggests changing the way people move which means ramping up public transit infrastructure in Delhi. She said,
If people are using private vehicles then the focus should be on transitioning the vehicular technology. Of course, there is a push towards electric vehicles (EVs) but increasing the number of personal EVs also doesn’t make sense because that is eventually going to result in an increased number of vehicles on the road. The only way to cut down emissions is for people to transition from private motorisation to shared motorisation and the shared motorisation also needs to be cleaner in terms of fuel efficiency as well as emissions.
What Steps Can Delhi Take To Address The Problem Of Air Pollution?
Ms Ganguly believes that several steps have been taken to improve the air quality index in Delhi. For instance, leapfrogging from BS IV to BS VI vehicles. We almost bypassed the BS V vehicle emission standard. Secondly, industries were moved out of the main part of Delhi. Unfortunately, it is the location that influences sources of pollution. She added,
We talk about air pollution in Delhi only during the winter season which results in a lot of firefighting. Our focus then moves to rolling out emergency actions like banning entry of trucks, banning the operation of construction sites, ramping up water sprinkling and increasing moisture content on roads so that roads are dust free but there is a problem with this. If we want these emergency measures to really work then we need to use the rest of the year to strengthen our systems so that they become nimble enough to respond to the emergency where it arises.
Ms Ganguly also added that in the case of cities like Delhi, particularly during the winter, the meteorology constantly impacts the air pollution levels. This means, the amount of pollution load which may be alright in summers because the meteorological conditions are favourable, becomes much worse during winters and that’s why even with the same amount of load, we see much higher pollution levels.
To assess the gravity of the problem, air quality monitoring is critical. But, as per Ms Ganguly, along with monitoring air quality, it is equally important to monitor how we are doing on urban infrastructure, the number of unpaved roads, the length of unpaved roads in the city, the number of waste burning sites, and whether there is door-to-door segregation happening around residential colonies. She said,
When we think about air quality monitoring, it has to be a little more multi-sectoral, it needs to go beyond monitoring air quality data. It also needs to have clear metrics for monitoring action which is happening across cities so that the interlinkages between air quality and these sectors can very clearly be established and accordingly actions can be taken.
Talking about water sprinkling and smog towers used to reduce air pollution levels in the national capital, Ms Ganguly said that these are techniques that claim to improve air quality once the emissions have already happened. But they don’t work. She said,
If we want to reduce air pollution, we need to cut down emissions at sources. There is no alternative to it.
To address Delhi’s air pollution crisis, the key is to control both local and regional sources which require local action and regional coordination. Ms Ganguly said,
While localised action is important, we need coordinated action across the region. So, ramp up local action, but at the same time also ensure that there is coordinated action across the Indo-Gangetic plain to actually ensure that not just Delhi but also other cities in Indo-Gangetic plain see air quality benefits, not just in winters but round the year.
You can listen to the full Banega Swasth India podcast discussion by hitting the play button on the Spotify player embedded above.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diarrhoea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.