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Delhi’s air quality endangers the health of its citizens, so innovative strategies are needed to regulate pollution.
“Children, sick and elderly persons are advised to stay inside.” I read this sentence in the paper every single day while I was in Delhi for a few weeks last year. Only afterwards did I learn that Delhi suffered record air pollution levels in autumn 2015. But I could feel the stress on my lungs every time I went outside. In the end, I took to wearing a scarf over my nose and mouth because my lungs started to hurt from all the filtering they had to do.
What is happening in India’s capital? In 2014, the World Health Organisation (WHO) gave Delhi the questionable “title” of the world’s most polluted city. Pollution levels are even worse than in China. Especially in winter, small particles fill the air, making it hard to breathe. Causes of this air pollution are manifold and include car exhaust, diesel generator fumes, biomass burning in the city (i.e. firewood for cooking, but also waste), dust in dry weather, and smoke when the surrounding states burn their crop residues. Festivals like Diwali in November with their infinite and omnipresent fire crackers do their part in polluting India’s air as well.
Air pollution is measured by the amount of particulate matter (PM) in the air. PM2.5 particles are less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, about 30 times smaller than the diameter of an average strand of human hair. These fine particles can penetrate deeply into the lungs, are highly carcinogenic, and not only damage the lungs, but also cause heart disease and many other deadly illnesses. According to the WHO and the European Union, a concentration of more than 25 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic metres endangers human health. Cities like Delhi regularly exceed this limit, however, sometimes reaching more than 300 micrograms.
Heart diseases caused by carcinogenic air pollution are already the leading cause of death in India.
India has the world’s highest death rate from chronic respiratory diseases and more deaths from asthma than any other nation, says the WHO. Heart diseases caused by carcinogenic air pollution are already the leading cause of death in India. The number of estimated premature deaths caused by PM2.5 in Delhi varies, but the Centre for Science and Environment estimates around 30,000 cases annually.
As a contribution to the COP 21 Paris Agreement, India declared ambitious targets for clean and renewable energy (40% share of renewable energies by 2030) and smart urbanisation. These measures aim at mitigating extreme pollution not just in Delhi, but throughout the country, and enable green growth, clean energy, and efficient economic development.
In the past, there have been attempts to improve Delhi’s air quality by moving polluting industries to the outskirts of the city, introducing large public transportation powered by compressed natural gas (CNG), and implementing a metro system in the city. Nowadays taxi drivers are only allowed to operate CNG cars and buses have switched to CNG as well. Public service cars with diesel engines are being phased out in favour of gas-powered cars. Additionally, the toll for commercial vehicles entering Delhi has been doubled. However, Delhi’s rapid growth and increase in industrial production, especially over the last decade, has outpaced the effects of these initiatives. The last peak in air pollution in November 2015, where PM2.5 levels of more than 500 micrograms were measured, served to raise awareness inside and outside of India of the causes of air pollution and possible remedies.
During even-odd weeks, the government promised 3,000 more buses and 9,000 CNG-powered contract carriages to augment public transport in Delhi.
The most famous initiative to mitigate air pollution in Delhi has been the “even-odd” rule launched in the first two weeks of 2016. This rule applies to private cars and is based on their license plates: even-numbered cars are only allowed to drive on even dates; odd-numbered cars may only enter the city on odd dates. This has worked quite well, significantly reducing the number of cars in the city and improving air quality. Besides lowering emissions, the new measure also eased traffic congestion. During even-odd weeks, the government promised 3,000 more buses and 9,000 CNG-powered contract carriages to augment public transport in Delhi. The trial period in January helped increase public awareness of the problem, even though air pollution from exhaust fumes accounts for just 15% - 20% per cent of Delhi’s smog problem. Still, the even-odd rule has many loopholes: It exempts motorcycles and encourages people to swap their license plates or even buy a second car if they can afford to.
Since vehicular emissions only account for about a fifth of Delhi’s air pollution, the government has proposed some measures to limit other big pollutants such as factories, building sites, farms in the surrounding states, and even private households in Delhi, although it has proven difficult to rank these according to their pollution impact. There are plans to introduce fines for burning waste and for building sites that generate too much dust, though these have not yet been finalised. Delhi’s government is also considering prohibiting the burning of crop residues in neighbouring states. Given the country’s federal structure, it would be difficult to establish a binding law for the federal states surrounding Delhi. Authorities have also proposed shutting down power plants and restricting truck movements. The burning of waste, one of the big challenges in air pollution, remains unsolved.
Socially responsible and feasible regulations for human-induced pollution need to be developed with the help of Delhi’s population.
While the record levels of air pollution in Delhi gained considerable attention worldwide in 2015 and in January 2016, the end of winter in India’s bustling capital means that public awareness of the problem is dropping again. Socially responsible and feasible regulations for human-induced pollution need to be developed with the help of Delhi’s population. This is easiest in the transportation sector, which requires only a small amount of personal action.
So far, the only measure intended to increase public awareness, besides the even-odd rule, has been the introduction of smart metering (Air Quality Index, AQI). Boards all over the city and internet sites show the daily estimates of PM2.5 levels and thus enable Delhi’s inhabitants to evaluate the air quality. Certainly the introduction of the even-odd rule this year has contributed to higher awareness of air pollution and its health consequences, but there needs to be more education at schools and elsewhere to teach Delhi’s inhabitants how to avoid polluting their city, what to do in times of high air pollution, and how to protect their health.
The even-odd rule has worked well for cities such as Beijing and Paris, so it may well be applicable to others as well. However, experts agree that India still has a long way to go to effectively improve air quality. Other measures that have proven successful include issuing a red alert when the PM2.5 level reaches a certain threshold, as practised in Beijing. This alert would lead to the closing of schools, factories and construction sites, and banning as many private cars as possible from the roads. In Paris, authorities have been experimenting with measures such as only allowing cars with at least three passengers on certain days, reducing maximum speed in the city to 20km/h, and offering free public transportation once a week.
Air pollution is not just a major issue in megacities such as Delhi and Paris, but also in many other cities all over the world.
It is important to keep in mind that while even-odd and similar rules might serve to decrease air pollution in the short term, there also have to be long-term solutions. Air pollution is not just a major issue in megacities such as Delhi and Paris, but also in many other cities all over the world. Long-term measures should be realistic and measurable. Authorities and politicians are responsible for formulating possible solutions in dialogue with the population and for transparently reinforcing and refining the measures.
Realistic solutions should tackle the issue of air pollution at the root. This may mean improved cycling lanes and pedestrian walkways depending on the city, region and culture, more research into electric cars and, maybe most importantly, educating the public. Air pollution needs to be a national priority, especially in India, which is home to 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities. So far, the government’s focus has been on how to reduce the car-induced pollution in Delhi. Other sources of air pollution, like burning crop residues or biomass cooking, are still neglected in the government’s policies for cleaning up the polluted air.
Photo: www.sayantanphotography.com (getty images)