The national Capital’s air is unhealthy (150-200 AQI) throughout the year, but in the coming days, it may cross levels — 500 — beyond which AQI can’t be measured. Temperature, wind speed and direction play a role in the making of this crisis — in winter, the three combine for a perfect storm. Delhi has too many vehicles and its proximity to the Thar landscape (and, therefore, dust) does not help. Besides, the city’s garbage disposal is far from ideal. Combined with the wind speed and direction, stubble burning pushes things over the edge. For instance, Delhi was at 350 AQI on average earlier this week when the wind was blowing from the southeast. The direction of the so-called transport layer of the wind has now changed to the northwest, and it’s bringing in stubble fire residue and smoke. The result — AQI crossed 400 and is now close to 470. Any alert system should factor in temperature (dips make pollution worse), wind speed and direction. Even if stubble burning went away, Delhi’s air would still be bad — but won’t go into the severe category as it has now, and likely won’t for a few years.
The problem needs to be addressed at two levels — long-term year-around measures and short-term ones related to traffic, construction, and stubble burning. The State response so far — from the science to the early alerts model to the responses — is inadequate, flawed, or both.
True, several measures have kept the crisis from turning even worse. For instance, forcing vehicle makers to adopt cleaner but costlier emission standards (Bharat Stage VI). Fuel refiners have been prodded into selling only low sulphur fuel, and incentives have been given for electric vehicles. Farmers in Punjab and Haryana are being given more help and incentives to abandon the practice of stubble burning. Clearly, these are not enough. The mainstay pollution mitigation effort – the Graded Response Action Plan (Grap) – has been a staggering failure. Delhi’s peak AQI on Friday, 468 (at 4 pm), is comparable to levels seen two years ago, at 471 on November 12, 2021. This year the early warning system that officials rely on to activate stages of Grap was neither early nor accurate – it failed to predict the air will turn severe by a margin of four days.
The recurrence of the crisis suggests there is either a lack of ideas for long-term and short-term solutions or that those with the right ideas are not being heard. The political class seems unaware or inadequately aware of the long-term consequences of pollution. India’s National Capital Region (NCR) is now infamous the world over for its bad air. That is a deterrent not only for international investment, but it will soon become a factor, if not already one, for the region to lose the best minds as they see in front of their eyes the toll the bad air exacts on them and their families. India may have reached the moment that Europe had in the 1970s when the green movements began mainstreaming discussions on the environment and forced political parties to include concerns about clean air and water in their lexicon.
It is time ecological concerns become part of our daily conversations and we, citizens, insist that political parties realise the battle against pollution is not some elite concern but an existential issue for the young and old, poor and rich of this great city.
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