The cause of Delhi's severe air pollution is primarily due to geographical and local factors
Like every year, the national capital is under the spell of air pollution at the start of winter this year. The air quality of Delhi and cities in the National Capital Region (NCR) has reached the poor and very poor categories. Delhi, Noida and Gurugram’s air quality index on October 29, 2023 was 322, 324, and 314, respectively, according to the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research, under the Union Ministry of Earth Sciences.
According to the Air Quality Index (AQI) criteria, air quality level of 0 to 50 is good, 51 to 100 is satisfactory, 101-200 is moderate, 201 to 300 is poor, 301 to 400 is very poor and 401 to 500 is severe.
On October 28, the AQI of Delhi was 301. In view of the poor air quality, vice chairperson of the Delhi Municipal Corporation announced a detailed plan to control air pollution in Delhi for 2023-24. According to this plan, seven mechanical sweepers and eight smog guns will be arranged.
The Delhi Environment Minister has also demanded the central government strictly prohibit low-quality diesel-powered buses in cities in the NCR states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. The Delhi government and environment ministry officials make such demands for initiatives every year because, at the beginning of winter, when the night temperature starts to drop suddenly, the amount of smoke, dust and other pollutants present in the air is converted into smog, which engulfs the capital in severe air pollution.
The cause of Delhi's severe air pollution is primarily due to geographical and local factors. According to the India Meteorological Department (IMD), because of the calm winds, the polluted gases, smoke, and dust particles spread in the local environment are not spreading to distant places and are polluting the local air.
The main sources of local air pollution are: Increasing number of vehicles, industrial units, construction activities, 24-hour-burning garbage dumps, diesel engines, air conditioners and thermal plants. The number of registered vehicles in Delhi was only 3.4 million in 2000, which increased to 12.25 million in 2021-2022.
Even after 15-year-old vehicles have been banned, around eight million vehicles ply on the roads of Delhi every day and emit gases like carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, ozone, and more.
A study by the Delhi-based think tank Centre of Science and Environment found that 70 per cent of the air pollution in Delhi is caused by vehicles alone. Industrial units also release huge amounts of polluting gases into the air.
Areas in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi generate 11,000 tonnes of waste every day. According to municipal corporation officials, approval is yet to be sought from the administration for the bio-mining projects to clean three million tonnes of waste from Ghazipur landfill and two million tonnes from Okhla landfill.
A report highlighted the fact that 1.7 million tonnes of coal are used annually in industrial units in the NCR. Coal releases more polluting green gases into the environment than any other fuel.
For several years, whenever the capital was affected by severe air pollution, instead of addressing the problem, the central and Delhi governments began blaming neighbouring states for burning farm stubble.
Not only does air pollution pollute the environment, but it also harms the health of all living organisms (plants, animals, and humans). According to a Greenpeace South-East Asia report, 54,000 people died in Delhi due to air pollution in 2020.
One in three school-going children in Delhi, is suffering from asthma, a joint study by Arvind Kumar and Sandeep Salvi has found. The paper brought out that the children of Delhi are being affected by air pollution more than the children of Mysuru and Kottayam because the air pollution in Delhi is higher than in these cities.
Continuous construction work and thermal plants are also responsible for the increasing pollution in Delhi. According to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, incidents of setting fire to paddy residue in Punjab and Haryana this year have been recorded in very few places compared to previous years. The wind has temporarily shifted from the north-west to the south-east, according to the IMD.
It is also worth noting that during the lockdown period due to COVID-19, the air in Delhi became completely clean as many activities were halted, clarifying that the air pollution in the national capital is, in fact, due to local activities. Therefore, the central and state governments should start making efforts to control it at the local level.
Air pollution increases the incidence of respiratory diseases as well as skin and heart diseases. According to the Air Quality Index 2023 of the Energy Policy Institute of the University of Chicago, the average life expectancy of Delhi residents is decreasing by 11.9 years due to increasing air pollution. A 2020 report from this organisation stated that this figure was 10.1 years.
The central and state governments thus need to take serious measures to protect the environment and the health of Delhiites. Public transport needs to be made so convenient that people start preferring public transport over private means of transport and make systematic efforts to increase public transport in proportion to the population.
Delhi already has a 400-kilometre metro rail network and plans should be made quickly to connect it to every corner of the city. Metro rail facilities as well as public bus service should also be improved. By making public transport smarter, air pollution in the capital will be greatly reduced. By facilitating public transport instead of private vehicles, the number of private vehicles will automatically decrease. As a result, the hassle of widening roads and creating new parking spaces will also be eliminated.
The government can also convert vacant parking lots into green belt areas to reduce the amount of pollutants released into the local environment as the vegetation in the green belts will absorb those pollutants. When the construction work of roads, under and overbridges will be reduced, that would help to reduce the air pollution caused by construction works.
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The Delhi administration should also speedily shut down coal-fired thermal plants for power generation from the surrounding areas and generate electricity from renewable sources and ensure the installation of purification devices in industrial units so that industrial units do not pollute the environment. The use of scientific techniques for waste disposal should also be ensured.
Because Delhi has an international airport, thousands of vehicles from neighbouring states drop off and pick up passengers every day, emitting massive amounts of polluting gases into the atmosphere. The central government should organise domestic flights as well as international flights from neighbouring states where airports have already been built.
Ordinary citizens can also help reduce air pollution by refraining from using firecrackers at small and large cultural events, walking instead of driving short distances and carpooling. Aside from these measures, the general public should contribute to air pollution control by reducing the use of air conditioners in their homes, as should administrative officials in government offices.
Gurinder Kaur is former professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala.
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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