As that smog thickens and thickens, it chokes the life out of millions of innocent people. It destroys the vitality of flora and takes the blue out of the sky making everything look dusted and dull. The beloved nature is nowhere to be found.
Delhi, the city of contrasts, claims the top spot on the list of world’s mega cities with the worst air quality, according to a World Health Organisation, 2016 report. Delhi being the capital city, a lot of priority is given to its development and welfare, more than any other city in the country. But when it comes to pollution control, that doesn’t happen. The main sources of Delhi’s pollution are its industrial waste and vehicular movements. Analysis of WHO’s 2016 report on global ambient air pollution shows us that New Delhi has a PM10 level of 229 µg/m³, the only city in the world to have exceeded the 200 µg/m³ level. According to the WHO guidelines 20 µg/m³ is the apt air quality standard.
Delhiites will remember the morning of the day after Diwali in November last year when they woke up to a sky with no blue and white in it. A smog so thick it felt like we had jumped right into foggy January. Those in the need of the cloak of invisibility didn’t need it that day, the smog did it for you. During this phase, which is also known as the “Great Smog of Delhi”, the PM 2.5 levels shot up to 743 against recommended 60 micrograms. Similarly with the PM10 levels case, where it reached to 999 against its 100 micrograms limit. People suffered from irritation in eyes, allergies, breathlessness, and constriction in the chest area. Asthma patients in the city faced breathing difficulties and many workers had to take sick leaves. But high levels of air pollution is not something new to the city. The graph below that was presented in Rajya Sabha by the Minister of State, Ms Jayanti Natarajan, in March 2012 bears testimony to that.
During this period, CNG program was introduced in Delhi which aimed to solve a large chunk of problems. Slowly with time, the benefits of CNG vanished since more vehicles came on the road, no regulation of freight movement and trucks carrying debris and construction material was done. The pursuit of industrial growth and demand for more energy (electricity) kept taking a big toll on the city. Every year we faced this problem of nasty air and every year we moved on with lame solutions.
Which brings us to very fundamental questions which every individual must ask: what have we done to tackle this dire pollution problem of Delhi? What has caused Delhi’s pollution to rise every year? What has the government been doing the past decade? Do we have a solution to curb this?
The problems and solutions lie within the city itself. But to begin, the first question must be asked to Delhi is this: why has the city been in denial about its pollution problems? One could ask a layman in Delhi if the city is polluted and would find the basic stereotypical answers. For Instance, the most common one would be, “No! The City has a lot of trees and greenery, it can’t be polluted.” Pollution levels have gone up year after year but the city doesn’t seem to notice.
Last year, the day after Diwali when the smog had taken over the city, people wore shawls and sweaters in the day assuming the smog as cold fog whereas the temperatures were quite normal. The people couldn’t identify that it is air pollution. The same day people were still burning crackers irrespective of the fact that smog was at its peak. There is a dire need for spreading awareness amongst the citizens of not only Delhi but the whole country. Across the political spectrum, there is no talk of agendas required for curbing air pollution. It doesn’t even come in mainstream political discussions and a blind eye is what this situation always gets.
Yes! Odd-Even Rule happened in Delhi. Talking about whether it was a success or failure will be nothing short of opening Pandora’s Box. But the fact of the matter is it was at least one courageous move towards curbing air pollution. The second trial had extremely disappointing results because the people had already understood the loopholes and we, after all, are a “jugaadu city”.
“Winter is Coming” as Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell says. The air pollution level in New Delhi will begin to increase drastically with the onset of winter. During the winters, the air quality in the city worsens due to a certain increase in seasonal activities and the changes in meteorological forces. As winter approaches, people burn biomass to warm their homes and farmers burn their stubble at the end of harvest season, and that produces a lot of smoke in the air. This mixes with the ground air since cold air during the winters gets stagnated over the city forcing people to breathe polluted air. And the everyday winter fog worsens it.
New Delhi is our nation’s pride and home to billions of dreams. We must protect it. The people and the government must stop denying the attention this problem deserves. According to The New York Times, “New Delhi’s current particulate levels are as dangerous to the city’s 20 million residents as smoking more than two packs of cigarettes every day”. The WHO states that in Delhi, poor quality air has damaging effects on the lungs of 2.2 million or 50 percent of all children. There is no dearth of data to prove how menacing the air over Delhi has become.
There is a need for a comprehensive strategy to fix this problem. The Delhi government should start regulating the vehicles on the road. Recent reports from the transport department of the Delhi government states that 10,567,712 vehicles are registered as of May 25. A smart integrated public transport system is required. The governments should not wait until winters when the panic stricken people and media come knocking at their doors. All the industries releasing smoke must be removed from the NCR area. An extensive air quality information dispersal system must be established for the safety of the people.
We may take some cue from countries where such health alert networks are already established that spread information through text messages and TV news tickers. In Beijing, there are sirens placed to inform public when the air quality has reached harmful levels. At the end of the day, it is us who have to fight for our right to life which is a fundamental right under the Constitution of India. Awareness among the people is the first step toward this fight. This campaign against pollution needs the participation of all institutions. The media, schools, colleges, civil society members, the state government, and the central government, all need to be equal participants in this process of fighting air pollution.