While Delhi NCR going through yet another season of air pollution emergency is unfortunate, the fog hovering over the understanding in these pages of what is causing the pollution and what needs to be done about it is even more unfortunate.
The editorial, ‘Join the dots’ (IE, November 4) seeks to pin the blame for the ongoing pollution emergency in Delhi squarely on the AAP governments in Delhi and Punjab. It further discredits the statement of Delhi’s Environment Minister Gopal Rai, “Sources outside Delhi cause twice the amount of pollution,” by calling it a “bogey” without getting into the trouble of explaining why.
For far too long, discussion on North India’s air pollution, often mistermed as Delhi’s air pollution, has been high on empty rhetoric and low on scientific data. Multiple research studies conducted over the past decade, however, shed light on what’s causing this and what can be done about it. Let us first ground this discussion in a few irrefutable facts.
First, only 30 per cent of Delhi’s pollution is contributed by local sources with the remainder coming from outside Delhi. Yes, you read that right. This was first reported by an independent source apportionment study of Delhi’s air pollution conducted by TERI and ARAI in 2018, and has since been a constant feature in the real-time data on source contribution generated by the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), a Government of India body. The Delhi Minister’s statement was based on IITM’s data for November 2 (see graph below) which clearly shows that only 25 per cent of Delhi’s air pollution was contributed by local sources, another 25 per cent by biomass or stubble burning and the rest by multiple sources in the surrounding region.
This makes imminent sense too. We know that the entire Delhi NCR — an area covering 55,000 sq km — is seeing air pollution levels similar to or worse than the national capital, which occupies only 1,480 sq km or 2.7 per cent of its land mass. In fact, out of the 52 most polluted districts in India on November 2, Haryana had the most — 20 districts. Greater Noida figured sixth and Delhi at seventh on the list. Clearly, polluted air sees no boundaries and yet questions being asked of the chief minister of Delhi never get asked of the CMs of Haryana or UP or the Union environment minister.
Second, Delhi is the only part of NCR that has seen a substantial reduction of 30 per cent in air pollution levels since 2016. This year itself, Delhi recorded the lowest average AQI between January and October as compared to the corresponding period in the last six years, barring Covid-affected 2020. The average AQI in Delhi in this period was 172 in 2023 as against 201 in 2018.
This was possible due to the persistent long-term measures taken by the AAP government, which no other state in NCR has taken so far. In the last nine years, the AAP government has shut all thermal power plants in Delhi, ensured 24×7 power supply thereby reducing reliance on polluting DG sets, transitioned all its 1,727 industrial units to piped natural gas (PNG), increased green cover by 44 sq km, and implemented an ambitious EV policy that has seen Delhi emerge as the EV capital of India with 12 per cent registration rate among new vehicles. Delhi has also strengthened its public transport by adding 2,000 more buses, including 800 electric buses — the highest in India. The Centre’s initiative in building peripheral roads around Delhi has also helped decongest Delhi.
Third, while stubble burning does play a substantial role in peak pollution episodes in the NCR region, its contribution has been under 25 per cent on all days of this season so far (barring November 3, when it was 35 per cent), not in the least due to a huge reduction in instances of farm fires in Punjab. Satellite data reveals a total of 17,403 fires in Punjab until November 5, as against 29,400 for the same period last year — a 41 per cent reduction. While there is scope for further reduction, this is no mean achievement.
This leaves us with the most important factor contributing to nearly 40-50 per cent of pollution in Delhi and NCR region — pollution emanating from Haryana and UP from varied sources such as unregulated industries, rampant construction, diesel vehicles, brick kilns, farm fires, etc. While both these states haven’t taken any of the above long-term measures taken by Delhi, what is concerning is that there is no such plan for the future either.
What is even more shocking is the flagrant violation of even the short-term measures mandated under GRAP (Graded Response Action Plan) by Haryana and UP. During the past week, only Delhi has implemented GRAP-mandated emergency measures such as banning non-BS6 diesel vehicles, DG sets, Diwali firecrackers, and shutting down construction activity. The governments of UP and Haryana, meanwhile, have gone into hiding.
Back in 2016, it was Delhi that showed the political will to implement the odd-even scheme to deal with a peak pollution episode, which reduced pollution levels by 14-16 per cent as per a study conducted by researchers from Harvard University and the University of Chicago. Since then, only Delhi has implemented this measure twice and has done so again this week, while Haryana and UP carry on with life as usual.
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What is most striking through all this is the abject silence of the Centre from taking any responsibility to resolve what is clearly a regional airshed problem affecting around 70 crore citizens living in the Indo-Gangetic plain. A problem of such magnitude needs ownership at the prime minister’s level, a regional action plan that is binding on all NCR states and harsh penalties on state governments that skimp on their actions — all of which are unfortunately missing.
This is not to say that Delhi and Punjab cannot do any better. But any call for political accountability must recognise the equal responsibility of Haryana, UP and central governments too – all under the BJP, account for steps already taken so far and demand time-bound actions in future keeping scientific data at the forefront. This is the real elephant in the room, or shall we say “bogey” that needs to be addressed.
The writer is Vice-chairperson of Dialogue and Development Commission of Delhi
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