Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal is not honest when he claims that the city’s air is good throughout the year and it only gets bad in the month of November, conveniently attributing it to stubble burning in the neighbouring states.
First ‘good’ air day of 2021 was on 19 October, post heavy rainfall in the region, with an Air Quality Index average of 46. Also, it is important to note that since the Central Pollution Control Board started measuring Delhi’s AQI in 2015, the city has not had a single good air day in 2015, 2016 and 2018, while 2017 and 2019 had two ‘good air’ days. You will be surprised to know that despite the lockdown in 2020, we only had five ‘good air’ days in Delhi. So far, in last six years, Delhi has had just 10 ‘good air’ days.
So, Delhi’s air pollution crisis is perennial and not seasonal. It’s, therefore, important to understand what makes Delhi the most toxic capital in the world. And mind you, we are only discussing air, not water, as Yamuna continues to froth as I write this piece.
IIT Kanpur’s comprehensive study in 2016 on various sources of pollution through the year, a study commissioned by the Delhi government itself, highlights the primary source of the city’s dwindling air quality.
The study highlights that road dust, along with construction and demolition dust, is the most prominent polluter of our air, on an average 38 per cent of PM 2.5 concentration and 56 per cent of PM 10, as an annual average. Vehicles are the second largest polluter, with 20 per cent of PM 2.5 load and approximately 9 per cent of PM 10. Then there are over 100 coal thermal plants in the immediate 300-km periphery of Delhi, open burning of waste by neighbourhoods and municipalities, stubble burning, etc. Industrial point sources have an annual contribution of about 11 per cent of PM 2.5 and 10 per cent of PM 10.
There have also been studies conducted by IIT Delhi and other research groups, and almost all of them establish the fact that the city’s pollution crisis is its own making, majority of its perennial sources being local. Given the geographical nature of the region, Delhi ends up becoming a pollution trap, with weather and wind speed playing a key role in deciding how bad or ‘not as bad’ its ambient air is on a particular day. Pollution grabs our attention in the month of November-December each year, or that of our media fraternity, and all hell is let loose on the two most visible sources of pollution — Diwali crackers and stubble burning — and every other sources of pollution are conveniently brushed under the carpet, with political slugfest taking the centre-stage.
As for firecrackers, there’s no denying the fact that, apart from fire and safety hazards, the one source of sudden spike in air pollution is emissions from firecrackers. The World Health Organization along with various other scientific institutions state that the air pollution spikes by more than 20 times on the day of Diwali, leaving its toxic particles suspended in our low atmosphere for several days.
We have also heard our doctors confirming that the cases of respiratory and pulmonological disorders reach an unprecedented level just after Diwali, especially amongst children, elderly and pregnant women. In September this year, we had a study published by Lung Care Foundation stating that almost every third child in Delhi-NCR has airflow obstruction or asthma, and it was affecting their neurodevelopment and cognitive ability, along with stunted lungs and brain. We have also had a study published by University of Chicago, as recent as September 2021, claiming that air pollution is likely to cut nine years of life expectancy of 40 percent Indians, especially in Delhi-NCR.
The other hot topic of discussion is stubble burning. No doubt, stubble burning needs to stop, as it harms everyone, including the farmers who put their farms on fire. However, stubble burning takes place for maximum three-four weeks in the month of October-November, not through the year, and on any day in these four weeks, its contribution to Delhi’s ambient air quality ranges from two percent to 38 percent. This depends on the wind direction, making the situation worse if the wind comes from the northwest.
No one is arguing that these four weeks of stubble burning do not create an air quality emergency in the region. We need to have a collective airshed approach to address this episodic source of pollution, but to put the complete onus of Delhi’s air pollution on the farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, is in complete defiance of data available to us. Moreover, given the farm distress in the country, this task cannot be left to farmers alone; the Central and respective state governments will have to sit together and look for a long-term solution.
We all need good air, and more than anything else, we all need good politics around good air. Our political class will have to display stronger political will to address the crisis. Our bureaucracy, especially lower bureaucracy, needs to be strengthened and empowered to combat air pollution. And our citizens need to understand that air can’t be bought in a supermarket.
The writer is an environmentalist. Views expressed are personal.