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Delhi is choked. Where did the clean air go?

Delhi's polluted air

By Akash Mehrotra

A casual walk in Delhi takes you back to Victorian London’s infamous thick fogs of the fifties. People died in the tens of thousands before the Clean Air Act was passed in 1956 in Britain. Here in India, we have chosen complacency over candour to deal with the crisis. While China has committed $277 billion towards reducing pollutants by 25% over five years in Beijing, there is no hint of such a commitment in India.

Delhi requires iron-fisted solutions, a war footing of the scale of London’s Clean Air Act and subsequent actions of 1956 to clean up its air.

There is a need to redefine the way city commutes, consumes and discards. Studies have established our short-comings but it’s time we build long-term solutions.

Redefine the way the city commutes

When public transport is over-crowded, there are millions of empty cars on the road to share the burden.

Over 5.6 lakh vehicles enter Delhi daily from outside and some only to use it as a transition point. The lack of a public transport system connecting different part of the NCR aggravates the use of private vehicles. A high-speed train corridor connecting these cities directly without Delhi could take a lot of these vehicles off the road. Sustainable transport solutions will also depend on our efficiency in putting more people in every car. When public transport is over-crowded, there are millions of empty cars on the road to share the burden. Jakarta is experimenting with dedicated lanes for high occupancy vehicles (HOV), to incentivize carpooling. Mexico city has initiated a car rationalization scheme. Under this scheme, only four-fifths of vehicles can ply on rotating days depending on the registration plate number of vehicles.

Changing the nature of short journeys and reducing unnecessary travel will also be vital in redefining transport. Better road designs, peak-time parking cess and robust local markets will reduce journeys. London is converting its major train stations into everyday shopping places to cut down excess travelling. It is also experimenting with a dynamic parking cess directly dependent on the Air Quality Index for the day. This means that commuters are likely to be charged more on a bad air day and vice versa.

Better legislation, accountability and data use

One of the highlights of Beijing’s fight against air pollution is strengthening of pollution laws.

One of the highlights of Beijing’s fight against air pollution is strengthening of pollution laws, making them more comprehensive and aggressive. In a five-year plan (2013-2017) adopted by the Beijing Municipal government, they have listed 81 points and made one person responsible for making each happen. The Government notification includes names and titles of these officers responsible with scheduled timelines and updates. This accountability has to be set in India.

Digitizing Pollution Control Boards and establishing citizen-initiatives could be the first steps towards increasing accountability. Citizens should be able to report faulty road designs and rule-violations to concerned authorities. Combining these with better use of data, efficient traffic management and elaborate air quality monitoring are further steps along the way.

Reduce stubble burning

With limited market options for paddy stalk, farmers find incineration preferable to incurring labour or machinery costs. The easiest measure would be to create market linkages alongside increasing subsidy on Happy Seeder to increase its use in stalk clearing. Better linkages with the brick industry, power plants, packaging companies or animal feed makers will turn the cost imbalance into opportunity and training farmers on alternatives like mushroom planting using rice straw as base will provide alternate livelihood options.

Poor air quality at India Gate

Recently, the heavy air pollution in Delhi caused visibility to drop significantly near India Gate. A major cause was stubble burning in nearby areas | Photo Courtesy: The Quint

With close to 12 million tonnes of straw burnt in Punjab alone, and the loss of soil nutrient equivalent to $18 million worth of urea and enormous amount of soil moisture, any scale of direct investment to arrest crop burning will have huge benefits.

Sweeping away the dust monster

Unless dust is converted into something, we will merely be shifting dust from one place to the another.

At 38 per cent, dust is the largest source of air pollution in Delhi. The Delhi Government has cracked whip on defaulters for bad construction site management practices and has also come up with a plan to vacuum clean the city. But unless dust is converted into something or used constructively, we will merely be shifting dust from one place to the another. It would be prudent to bake this dust into bricks.

A lot of this dust can also be attributed to dust storms in the Thar Desert. A massive greening of the NCR is required as a long-term plan to reduce the impact of these storms. This would require better management and extension of the Aravali forests and sustenance of Trees outside Forests (ToF) in rural belts of the NCR.

Nothing is waste till it is wasted

There is a serious problem in the way waste is collected and managed in India. More than half the waste is bio-degradable and can easily be converted into fertilisers, with the remaining sent to recycling industries or incinerated to produce energy. This segregation is best served, when done at source. Good examples come from local instances in Pune and Saharanpur. There is no one-shot measure to arrest this toxicity. It is prudent to decisively attack the 20% of sources that produce 80% of emissions for early gains.

We need to go beyond stopgap solutions and create long-term action plans to overcome the horrors floating in the air. Let’s hope we can hold our breaths long enough to see it change.


Aakash Mehrotra is a management consultant working in the field of financial technology, focusing on using technology to extend financial services to rural and low income households. He is also a travel blogger.

Featured Image Credits: Travelshooters

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