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Air Pollution and Public Policy: Delhi’s battle with rising Air Quality Indices

As the average Indian loses 5.2 years due to particulate pollution, and as 84% of Indians live in areas exceeding the national air quality standards, air pollution was, according to Greenpeace, responsible for 24,000 deaths in Delhi alone in the first half of 2020. The rise of GDPs in India’s emerging economies is bringing with it a sharp decline in the air quality of the cities. In the last five years alone, India was home to 14 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities. Indian megacities, including Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai, housing together over 46 million people, face extreme air quality issues and related health hazards. Most Indian cities, with the diversity of their cultures and the differences of their cuisines, are bound by one thing: air pollution. While each of these cities battles this problem in its own ways, Delhi has become a symbol of urban pollution all around the world. Though air remains way beyond healthy, or even moderate, levels all around the year, it only worsens in the winter months as the neighbouring states burn their stubble. Delhi’s AQI in the pollution season exceeds all scales and measures as the air goes beyond hazardous, and each day Delhiites breathe air that harms their lungs the same way as 44 cigarettes would.

However, as the Coronavirus pandemic spread and the country saw a nation-wide lockdown, an AQI below 50 was seen in Delhi for the first time in years. As travel and construction activities were halted and most businesses were shut, the PM 2.5 levels in air dropped in some of the worst air-pollution hit cities in the world. In a period of 3 weeks from 23rd March 2020 to 13th April 2020, while London, UK and Madrid, Spain respectively saw 9% and 11% reductions in average PM 2.5 levels compared to the same period in 2019, Delhi saw a reduction of 60%.

However, as the lockdown opened and activities, including commercial, transport and construction projects, resumed, air quality declined once again. In the six months preceding July 2020, Delhi lost 5.8% of its annual GDP because of air pollution. As the season for the cutting off crops in the states bordering Delhi approaches, the Supreme Court asked the governments of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh for measures the states are taking to prevent stubble burning. With the aim of curbing air pollution, a task-force headed by Mr. PK Mishra, also met on Friday, 18th September 2020 to intervene and ensure better air quality. The Delhi government was also asked to control the local sources of pollution. Plans for various other measures are underway, such as the purchase of an aircraft to monitor meteorological data and the Electrical Vehicle Policy by Kejriwal's government. Delhi air pollution is mainly caused by emissions released from vehicles and other industrial locations, and burning of garbage and waste.

With the Winter approaching and the temperature dropping gradually, the air pollution has significantly spiked because farmers in surrounding areas of Delhi burn stubble to clear land after the harvest takes place by the end of the month of September. This activity is further accompanied with weather changes such as wind speeds dropping and lesser rainfall measurements that do help clear the pollution more effectively than most of the other natural measures.

The popular tradition of burning firecrackers during Diwali celebrations usually contributes to worsening air quality. In 2019, despite efforts to encourage people to buy green firecrackers and watch laser shows instead, levels of fine particulate matter (also known as PM 2.5) pollutants soared to 829.2 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3). This is more than 80 times the WHO recommended annual level. Solutions to the problem lie in three main spheres, namely Technological, Economic and Political. Technological solutions include the reduction of emissions and the increasing of extraction. However, as winding back on growth aspirations is not an option, environment friendly materials need to be put in use wherever possible. Municipal and other waste management is also crucial, and projects such as the Bisolar Leaf Project in London and the Absolut Street Trees need to be implemented on a wide scale. Germany, though not the most gifted in sunlight, leads in the race in solar energy and its model is an example to the more naturally abundant regions such as India.

As India approaches towards adapting solar energy as a primary source of power across a wide range of industries, there are major obstacles that it would have to overcome in order to reduce the amount of carbon emissions. In most cases, the disruption in the rapid expansion of Delhi’s solar power plants is caused by the reluctance of discoms to sign power supply agreements (PSAs). On a more economic as well as political end, various other issues such as unavailability of land and inadequate power transmission infrastructure, leads to unreasonable delays in the process. The Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI) for inter-state transmission system (ISTS) has also not found buyers for power from some units of local players like ReNew Power, Azure Power and Adani Green Energy. The impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the supply chain has also been listed as a cause of the demand for PPA cancellations.

As of November 6 2020, the Central Pollution Control Board has placed the Air Quality Index of Delhi NCR under the ‘severe’ category.

On the brighter side, many State governments declared a ban on the sale, purchase and the usage of fireworks and firecrackers including Delhi, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Odisha, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Chandigarh, Haryana and Karnataka. While the implementation and effectiveness of these measures remain in question and the outcome of this ban will be prominently visible only when the time comes, this nonetheless can be perceived as a welcoming step taken by the respective State Governments. This certainly brings in a glimmer of hope for the residents of Delhi and the previously mentioned States that the rising Air Quality Index (AQI) would eventually begin to decline and the state of affairs would return to a situation of normalcy.

Air Pollution - Maryam Siddiqui
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