Air pollution in Delhi-NCR: Smoke and mirrors

Cleaning Delhi's air needs concerted and year-long action on all fronts; because it concerns our health; our right to breathe

By Sunita Narain
Published: Wednesday 27 November 2019
Smog near the Akshardham temple in Delhi. Photo: Vikas Choudhary
Smog near the Akshardham temple in Delhi. Photo: Vikas Choudhary Smog near the Akshardham temple in Delhi. Photo: Vikas Choudhary

This is the third in my series on Delhi-National Capital Region's (NCR's) air pollution emergency. I first discussed what has been done to reduce emissions till date (Down To Earth, 16-31 October).

Then I wrote on the “nature” of the crisis — why we choke in winter and why we need to do more (16-30 November). This time, I want to talk about what needs to be done with urgency and at scale befitting the crisis.

I want to write about this otherwise the smoke will be deflected off the mirrors — we will be angry, indeed outraged about the air we breathe; but we will not get our right to blue skies and clear lungs.

The bottom-line is we need tough action and at scale — it must be transformative enough so that it can beat the galloping pollution. When Delhi moved to compressed natural gas (CNG), it did so within one-two years.

All the public transport vehicles — over 100,000 — were converted to clean fuel. So, the drastic action, however inconvenient, showed up in our pollution figures.

We saw the stars in the skies. In these past three years, critical steps have been taken — from a ban on coal usage in Delhi to moving towards cleaner fuel for vehicles and reducing gross-polluting truck traffic — and it is bending the pollution curve. But it is not enough.

So, what do we do next? We know the key sources of pollution — vehicles, factories, thermal power plants, diesel generators, garbage burning in open and in landfills, dust and more dust. In addition, there is the month-long pollution due to the burning of crop residue, which hits us just as weather turns adverse — no wind; moisture and inversion.

We also know that action is always contested — any steps to control pollution from any source is always faced with the position that we are only one per cent. In other words, why us? Every contributor of air pollution says we are not the problem; act elsewhere. So, what do we do?

First, we need a clean fuel transformation — no ifs and buts on this. Everybody mentions that Beijing cleaned up its air; and, this is how they did it. They forced homes and factories to shift from dirty coal to cleaner natural gas.

This is what we need to do, not just in Delhi but across the neighbouring states — all enjoined by adverse weather and pollution. It is time for the second gas transition in the region — first it was CNG for vehicles, now we need it to completely takeover combustion in industries, power plants and homes.

But this will not be easy. The fact is the price of gas is much higher than coal, the fuel that is now preferred in the region after the ban on the even more polluting pet coke.

Industry says that if it switches to gas, it will not be able to compete with others outside the region. They will have to shut down. So, how will this work?

Either the price of gas is brought down; or the industry is asked to move irrespective of the price. One way or the other, the way ahead is tough. There are no easy options.

The second solution is to move from individual power generation (diesel generators) — in industries or in commercial areas of homes — to electricity.

The third solution is to simultaneously make sure that power generation is as clean as it can be. Large parts of the region — and you will be shocked to know the numbers — still operate on diesel generators and this goes even for swanky apartments of the rich. This has to change, and fast. Not convenient. Not easy. But absolutely necessary for clean air.

But then, we also need power plants to be clean. Delhi has already shut down its coal-based power plants; now we have to ensure that all plants in NCR — the airshed — move to the much more stringent 2015 emission standards; move to gas; or, simply shut down.

Again, not convenient. In addition, vehicle sales need to be restrained; reduced; and, cleaned. We know that. Again, we are doing too little on this.

Stubble burning — remember, stubble benefits the farmer and the soil — needs solutions. The ideal solution would be to provide a market for rice residue so that farmers have an incentive not to burn, but to sell. In addition, there is the option to provide machines for tilling the stubble back into the ground.

Solutions exist. The challenge now is to get it done. With all this, we also need to reduce local sources of pollution — from garbage burning to dust management. This requires enforcement, but it also needs systemic reform — we have to segregate and process the garbage.

We know this. This is what we can do for our clean air. We need concerted and year-long action on all these fronts. Not sound and fury that blasts us in the high pollution season and then dies into a whimper till the next winter comes along.

Cleaning Delhi's air must not become an annual exercise in smoke and mirrors. Because it concerns our health; our right to breathe. 

(This is part of Down To Earth's forthcoming print edition dated December 1-15, 2019)

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