The Road to Fixing Air Pollution in Delhi, Beyond Odd-even

By Namit Arora | Feb 2016 | Comments

This is a slightly updated version of a piece that first appeared in The Wire.

HDBAn unprecedented public health crisis has been unfolding in Delhi: 40 percent of our kids now fail lung capacity tests. Respiratory emergencies have tripled in the last seven years, with no relief in sight. Just breathing our air, full of toxic gases and particulates, has raised the incidence of strokes, heart disease, cancers, birth defects, pneumonia, and more. In Delhi alone, an estimated 80 people are dying daily from conditions provoked by air pollution. Much like smoking cigarettes, it’s shaving years off our lives.

Though some fare worse than others, none are immune: rich or poor, young or old. A high burden of disease erodes quality of life, family finances, and the economy. What will be the cost of this health crisis, in human lives, in healthcare, in lost productivity?

It’s a good thing the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government plans to build a thousand Mohalla clinics, because what’s unfolding is far bigger than last year's dengue scare in Delhi. Though experts have long known these health effects of air pollution, years of apathy, ignorance, and denial—among both citizens and politicians—have led us here. So how serious are the AAP and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments about fixing this menace?

Odd-even Was a Success But ...

The AAP government, under pressure from the courts, announced several anti-pollution measures last December. Among these was the bold odd-even experiment, an emergency measure designed to temporarily reduce pollution. Going just by the 30 percent drop in fuel sales, there’s no doubt that the measure cut pollution. But its larger success lay in creating awareness of the problem, because awareness is a precursor for change. Odd-even also reduced congestion and commute times, and pushed many to discover car pooling and public transport. Compliance was high, proving that Delhiites can rise to the occasion in a show of civic sense that many thought impossible. Many who were skeptical are now praising the scheme. Some even want it back.

The AAP government wants to bring back odd-even this summer, when pollution levels are well below half that in winter. They are even consulting the people of Delhi on when, and for how long, to implement it. But this approach makes little sense for a decision that elsewhere in the world is rightly guided by pollution levels, not opinion polls. Odd-even is an emergency measure; it should be deployed only on the worst days of pollution as part of a larger emergency response that also shuts schools, certain industries, etc. If the AAP’s primary intention here is to further raise public awareness of pollution, they should instead mobilize the sluggish bureaucracy they have inherited to work on other measures this summer—measures that will involve the public as well as bring about a lasting reduction in the sources of pollution.

Our Major Sources of Pollution

Understanding the sources of our pollution is an essential first step for evidence-based action. However, a precise apportioning of pollution from each source remains an intractable challenge. That’s because pollution in Delhi, more than in first-world cities, depends on a highly diverse and shifting set of factors both in and outside Delhi. These include varied fuel types used by vehicles, businesses, and households; burning of crop residue and other biomass; waste burning; dust from exposed soil surfaces; construction practices; industries and power plants; traffic congestion; power outages and diesel generator sets (gensets); weather and season; the socioeconomics of a neighborhood; and more.

Several scientific studies do exist to describe how much of our pollution comes from which source, but they arrive at different results owing to different assumptions, methodologies, and ideologies. No single study can be said to get it all "right", including the much talked about recent study by IIT Kanpur (which remains mysteriously hidden; why isn’t it public yet?). The researcher must rely upon surveys to estimate how much of the diesel emissions in our air come from vehicles vs. gensets vs. mobile towers; how much of the biomass emissions come from cooking vs. waste burning vs. crop residue; how much of coal emissions come from brick kilns vs. industries vs. power plants; and so on. The truth is that source apportionment studies use the language of physical science but, given their hydra-headed object of study, inevitably differ in their findings. Interested parties then gravitate towards and promote the studies that confirm their biases and preconceptions.

Instead of obsessing over precision of source apportionment in a single study, which is a mirage, it’s more useful to consider all studies together in determining the top sources of pollution. Doing so reveals the following as the top three (especially when factoring in what people actually breathe, as opposed to the ambient pollution measured by air monitors): (1) Vehicular emissions, with a focus on diesel; (2) Burning of coal, wood, kerosene, waste, crop residue, and other biomass; (3) Dust from roads, exposed soil, and construction sites.

What Should Our Governments Do?

Delhi should learn from other cities around the world. Take the case of Mexico City, similar to Delhi in terms of demographics, geography, and the curse of wintertime inversion. In 1992, when Mexico City was declared the most polluted city in the world, it initiated a series of measures that led to much cleaner air within a decade. If they can do it, so can we! The work required is not mysterious and is, in fact, laid out for us. It’s much cheaper to reduce pollution than to deal with its human toll. Every bit of reduction is worth fighting for.

Below are the top seven areas in which our state and central governments must act collaboratively, with both local and regional initiatives. These initiatives will not only reduce pollution but will also go a long way in turning Delhi into the "world class city" that the AAP promised.

  1. Increase public awareness of air pollution. Educate and inform people about what they can do to reduce air pollution. Put out public health messages on the metro, buses, billboards, and radio to help change public behavior. Increase pollution monitoring stations. Issue daily advisories. Make pollution masks available in health clinics and promote them to the most vulnerable workers, such as traffic cops, auto drivers, street vendors, and municipal workers. Also raise awareness of indoor pollution.

  2. Raise and enforce emission standards. India is still on Bharat III and IV emission standards for our vehicles and fuels. This is 10-15 years behind the West, where vehicles spew one-tenth of our emissions or less. Why should we accept this? The same auto makers who operate under higher standards in the West supply inferior technology to us. Some of our refineries make Bharat VI fuel for export but not for us. There is no good reason why we shouldn’t mandate Bharat VI by 2017, perhaps starting with the NCR. Only industry lobbies stand in the way. As in California, we should also require automakers to sell a minimum percentage of electric vehicles in Delhi. Undertake a comprehensive audit of polluting industries in Delhi NCR; tighten and enforce emission norms.

  3. Improve public transportation and traffic management. Expand the fleet of CNG buses. Implement BRT the right way. Build, repair, and reclaim the sidewalks for pedestrians—not for parking and vending—so people can walk more often, including to nearby bus stops and metro stations. Augment last-mile options. Use better signage; promote and enforce driving rules and lane discipline to reduce congestion. Negotiate staggered office timings with large private employers. Create better urban traffic management on the roads to reduce congestion and related idling; reduce choke points. Augment car parking at metro stations across the NCR.

  4. Discourage vehicle use: Driving is not a right but a privilege; it has a social cost. Impose—as many countries do—an annual vehicle use fee. Penalize ownership of multiple cars in a household. Rethink and limit car parking in the city; raise the cost of parking and make some streets pedestrian-only; impose parking fines outside designated parking spaces. Promote cab-sharing, carpooling, and shuttle services. Create a network of safe bike paths. Create incentives and tax exemptions for hybrid and electric vehicles.

  5. Penalize big and non-compliant polluters. Like Beijing, ban the sale and registration of all new private diesel vehicles in Delhi. Provide 24x7 power across the NCR to minimize genset use; ban diesel gensets and promote CNG gensets. Spot-check fuel pumps for adulteration. Move coal-fired brick/pottery kilns out of the NCR. Ban wood and coal burning in restaurants; allow only electric and LPG equipment. Subsidize electric and CNG crematoriums. Spot-check emissions on commercial vehicles at the border; block vehicles that fail emission norms. Encourage citizens to report violators via a mobile app, similar to the anti-corruption hotline. Accelerate work on peripheral expressways. Work with other states to enforce the ban on farm fires in and beyond the NCR. Promote renewable energy and avoid building coal power plants near dense population zones in north India.

  6. Reduce road and construction dust. The problem of dust plagues the entire Indo-Gangetic plain. It can be mitigated by changing how our urban surface infrastructure is built. To start with, require covering of all exposed soil surfaces along roads with stone tiles, sidewalks, or hardy vegetation in Delhi NCR and then start ‘vacuum sweeping’ of roads (not the other way around, which would be futile). Issue guidelines to regulate pollution at construction sites; notify and enforce regulations.

  7. Reduce domestic sources of pollution, improve waste management. According to the 2011 census, over ten percent of Delhi’s households still use biomass for cooking. Remove the address proof requirement for LPG purchases. Make LPG more affordable. Promote more efficient, less smoky chulhas. Reduce the burning of biomass. Improve waste collection services, so there will be no trash or leaves left to burn. Ensure strict emission norms for waste-to-energy plants. Ban fire-crackers for all private and public events, and discourage their use during festivals.

Making It Happen

What, then, are the obstacles to progress? Delhi has more financial resources than other metros and lots of expertise in its elite institutions. But Delhi, too, if perhaps less than its neighbors, displays the Indian State’s notoriously weak ability to implement policies and services on the ground. The best laid plans often fizzle out due to a culture that mixes apathy, absenteeism, corruption, and incompetence—a wider cultural problem. What makes matters worse in Delhi are the incessant tide of migrants, misaligned institutional structures (unwisely split between the Center and the quasi-state of Delhi), and the BJP’s ongoing vendetta against the AAP.

Citizens certainly need to do their part to help reduce air pollution through their daily actions. Our lack of civic sense and responsibility is legendary, and it needs to be raised via concerted public service messages and school education, as well as well-designed incentives and penalties. But that won’t be enough. What will it take to get our state and central governments to also tackle the big ticket items like emission standards, public transport, waste management, biomass burning, and dust reduction?

As with the switch to CNG 15 years ago, much of the recent activism on air pollution has emerged from our courts. Behind this lies the sad reality of disempowered pollution control boards, unmotivated bureaucracies, and politicians unwilling to prioritize measures unless they seem electorally important. But while Public Interest Litigation may be a useful tactic, it’s neither enough, nor a sustainable strategy. In a democracy, there’s no substitute for a critical mass of informed citizens. Clean air will not become the government’s priority unless citizens make it their priority. Citizen and media pressure is central to this change. We need to mobilize and have our voices heard through various citizen-led initiatives, such as "Help Delhi Breathe". Let’s rise, agitate, and reclaim our right to clean air.


Namit Arora is a member of the Dialogue and Development Commission (DDC), an advisory body to the Government of NCT of Delhi. Most recently, he led the drafting of Delhi’s Solar Energy Policy and is now working on the problem of air pollution.

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