In all likelihood, Delhi is neither the most polluted city in India nor in the world, as it is being made out to be. If air pollution in other Indian cities was measured properly, we would know better. Of the 5,000-odd cities in India, ambient air quality is measured in only 247 cities. Of these, only 16 have any sort of automated and real-time monitoring of air quality. The rest measure the air for a few pollutants through manual mechanisms and documentation is sometimes generated only once a year to be published in the annual reports of the state pollution control boards - reports that no one reads.
In contrast, Delhi has 19 real-time automated monitors for air pollution. It has a judiciary that seems obsessed with the issue, an active and aware middle-class citizenry, some of the best minds outside the government analysing the data, and constant questioning of the state and central governments about these readings. It is only this availability of data and public debate that characterise the air in Delhi as the foulest in India.
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Things weren't so bad a decade ago. Delhi was seen as a leader, making rapid strides in managing an environmental menace that leads to the death of millions in India. "Delhi was doing almost as much as Beijing at one point till around 2010-11 in implementing the first generation reforms," says Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). She should know. CSE fought a long and difficult battle to get the city's public transport to shift from diesel to compressed natural gas and to take up other reforms. The Delhi government took the credit for the changes.
The capital lost the fight against rising air pollution after the 2010 Commonwealth Games, says experts. Beijing learnt the lesson and upped its game after the Olympics in the city in 2008. In Delhi, the bus rapid transport remained an experiment and any changes in the overall mobility plan for the National Capital Region was a victim of a lack of political will. The metro rail has helped, but it is not a counter to the rapidly increasing automobiles and construction boom.
Delhi is adding approximately 1,400 new vehicles to the traffic every day, notes CSE. About half a decade ago the figure was 1,000 new vehicles per day. Proposals for a congestion tax imposed through a better parking policy and a rapid augmentation of public transport have remained on the back burner. The discomfort to the middle class in the transition and the impact on the automobile industry can dampen any government's political will in this matter. In contrast, Beijing imposed a cap on the total number of cars that could be sold in the city. It was initially kept at 30 per cent of the vehicles sold in 2010. Beijing's cars now run on Euro V fuel, a much cleaner set of fuels than in Delhi, where the norm is Euro IV. Beijing will move to cleaner fuel standards in 2017. Delhi will reach there only by 2024 under the current plans even though refineries say they could start providing the clean fuels by 2020.
To add to the vehicular pollution in Delhi, there is the dust from never-ending construction, and the pollution caused by the coal-fired power plant at Badarpur and the industrial units on the periphery of the city. Prioritising what to regulate and how to do it depends on an understanding of not just what is the ambient air pollution, but also what people inhale more, or what is termed "individual exposure". Roy Chowdhury quotes a study by Boston-based Health Effects Institute that found the impact of air pollution on people being the most inimical if they were living or working within 500 metres of the source of pollution. In Delhi, 55 per cent of the people live inside a 500-metre radius of traffic-bearing main roads. The repercussions are telling. Guttikunda and Goel, in another published study, estimated that in 2010 alone between 7,350 and 16,200 people died a premature death due to air pollution in Delhi. Nearly 400,000 children suffered from acute bronchitis and there were nearly half a million emergency room visits due to the effect of polluted-air inhalation.
While some pollutants need to be checked, there are others - toxic and carcinogenic - that people should not be breathing at all. But alarmingly, such pollutants are increasing in volume almost every year. "It's a multi-pollutant crisis really," says Roy Chodhury. Some countries have a separate programme to handle these toxic pollutants that come mostly from the combustion of fossil fuels. Delhi - as well as the rest of India - doesn't. Monitoring ambient air for these pollutants across the country is something policymakers should not tarry over, say experts. Real-time automated monitors may be expensive, costing around Rs 3 crore per unit with each city requiring around three of them, but there are cheaper supplementary and complementary devices now available that can help assess air quality and aid immediate policy responses.
Delhi at least is fortunate to have a monitoring system in place. In fact, the city has even beaten Beijing in putting out reliable raw pollution data. But worries have emerged in recent days about delays in releasing such data because the central government wants to standardise data and verify it.
There is a good economic case to be made for investment in a public transport system that saves on the loss of productivity due to air-pollution related health problems. Also, reforms like introducing better vehicular fuels could help the automobile industry remain export competitive. But all such reasons fade in the face of the need to keep lakhs of children safe from crippling respiratory problems and thousands others from dying every year.