On Delhi’s Pollution Problems

In recent weeks, smog has been a major talking point in Delhi. Various photos have been traded around in social media and  news reports emerged detailing the increased smog in the city.

Delhi’s pollution levels are not a new phenomenon. Pollution levels are talked about every year. But just how bad are Delhi’s air pollution levels? A 2016 WHO Report on urban ambient air pollution shows that Delhi’s PM10 (Particulate Matter) annual mean levels are 229, while PM2.5 annual mean levels stand at 122. Delhi’s PM10 levels are the 25th highest in the 3000 cities that were counted in the WHO report. Delhi’s PM2.5 levels were at an even more worrying 11th highest of the 3000 cities in the WHO report. Particulate matter is the amount of substances suspended in the air and are hazardous to health.

The real time map of World Air Quality Index is also another handy tool to see how significantly lower the quality of air in New Delhi and its surrounding areas (especially Faridabad) is when compared with the rest of the world. The map follows the color codes according to the EPA’s scale on the level of danger of the air quality. Delhi and the surrounding areas show a range of air quality between being unhealthy for sensitive groups and hazardous for most of the population.

One of the reasons for this pollution that has emerged is due to agriculture, or more specifically, the burning of crop (and other plant debris) in Delhi, as well as neighboring Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. The impact of this crop burning is discussed in a judgment passed by the National Green Tribunal. The judgment notes that excess smog between October-December 2012 was attributed to the burning of rice straw. Recent satellite imagery from NASA also provides further proof of the smoke due to crop burning in Punjab being carried over to Delhi, contributing to Delhi’s pollution problem. Farmers burn crops/straw/plant debris in October, to clear out their fields for planting Wheat in November.

However, farmers practicing crop burning cannot be entirely blamed for Delhi’s pollution problem. Chandigarh, Punjab and Haryana’s capital, has less than half PM10 and PM2.5 levels according to the WHO report on urban air pollution. There are other reasons as well for Delhi’s pollution, which include pollution produced from the production of energy, weather patterns such as air currents and car usage in Delhi.

Construction sites are a prominent sight in Delhi, and the dust they produce as well as the brick kilns used to create bricks contribute to Delhi’s pollution woes too. While most of these brick kilns are not directly inside the city, they are close enough to contribute to the air pollution. Furthermore, the use of biomass for cooking and two coal power plants in Badarpur and Rajghat, according to the IEA, contribute to the PM2.5 particles in Delhi’s air.

Delhi’s weather and geography also contribute to its pollution woes. The geography of Delhi locks in winds and prevents proper circulation of air from outside regions, which traps the pollution in the city.

Finally, economic growth has spurred the number of people who now own cars in Delhi. And given the poor urban planning in Delhi, you’re left with a situation that enables traffic congestion. This congestion means slower speeds and hence travel times, which in turn means that cars in Delhi emit extra pollution.

The pollution in Delhi is a topic that has gained ample media attention of late and both the federal and state government are in overdrive to correct course. Brick kilns and construction work has been halted in recent developments aimed at curbing current pollution. There are other positives from earlier as well, such as the Delhi metro that provides a strong public transport option to the people and thus reduces the amount of people using cars in Delhi.

However, focus also needs to be directed towards developing standards that ascertain the impact of construction projects on the environment before clearing them. In the longer run, the energy sector also needs to be looked at. If anything, the pollution in Delhi creates an opportunity for investment, both government and private, into developing renewable energy sources in the surrounding areas of Delhi. At the end of the day, Delhi’s pollution woes are owed to various and disparate reasons and only a broad push by both the federal and state governments, to tackle the problem, will help in reducing pollution in Delhi.