Delhi has been battling a major environmental issue in the form of air pollution. Air quality dipped drastically and persistently remained low. There was a medical emergency in the national capital region. Delhi Smog is usually equal to smoking 50 cigarettes a day. Fine particulate matter (PM) was record breaking; PM2.5 levels were recorded at 999 at some places. Permissible limits for PM2.5 and PM10 are 60 and 100 ug/m3, respectively. The number of people with respiratory diseases rose by three times or roughly 300%.

Bronchitis and asthma were rampant. In fact, the Supreme Court of India had to intervene and said that the situation was becoming life-threatening with every passing day. It also observed that it was as an emergency-like situation. In fact, Delhi is now recognized as one of the most polluted cities of the world. Pollution kills millions of people in India every year, says a report by journal The Lancet. To control air pollution, the Supreme Court also banned firecrackers in Delhi. (Vivek Chattopadhyaya, Senior Program Manager, Air Pollution Control Unit, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) speaks to about various environmental issues facing Delhi and the way out. These are his views on Delhi Air Pollution Control).

Question: Do you agree with the Supreme Court ordered ban on Diwali crackers for Delhi Air Pollution Control? Do you think it should be extended to the whole country?

There are no options left during the peak pollution period other than to drastic emissions cuts. Along this line, the Supreme Court had to intervene time to time to ban polluting practices, such as ban on diesel use in public buses and allowing clean fuels in late 1990s, recently they banned the use of highly polluting furnace oil and petroleum coke in industries in NCR states. Similarly, the high air pollution caused by firecrackers was brought to the court’s notice by kids through lawyers, which was banned during this Diwali to protect public health.

As an environment and public health safety body, we support the restrictions introduced after this order, however, since firecrackers usage has become part of celebration over the years we would like to see a more programmatic way of reducing the firecracker usage such as graded reduction in quantum of crackes sold, fully cutting down use of harmful metals, stringent measures to display the chemical composition, by involving the community gradually shifting to community celebration rather than every individual burning crackes, time-boundation in crackers use, strengthening school children oriented campaigns, etc. So, goal should be society reduces cracker usage and at regulators level enforcement becomes more robust.

Outright ban across India may not work as we have seen in Delhi when many people procured crackers and burnt, so people somehow have to come on board to have a change in practice, as it has become part of celebrations. This process may take sometime as it calls for behavior change but we expect that will be more effective in the longer run, but if air quality remains in emergency levels sometime complete ban may be also be needed in public interest.

Question: Delhi Smog is a major environment problem. What the possible solutions to Delhi Air Pollution Control?

Delhi has seen a variety of actions to reduce air pollution in the past two decades. Some of major ones have been shifting the entire public transport to CNG, setting up of gas-based power plants, introduction of tough emission norms for vehicles, relocating polluting industries and prescribing clean fuels. More recently, hefty pollution cess has been imposed on trucks as environment compensation charge. These measures help Delhi keep emissions in check; otherwise the situation could have been worse.

However, a lot still needs to be done to improve bus services, providing last mile connectivity, safe walking as well as cycling infrastructure, curb on industrial emissions as well as dust suppressant measures, efficient garbage management to prevent refuse burning, etc. In summary, Delhi smog has its origin in emissions from vehicles, refuse burning, industries, and dust. However, a big portion of Delhi Smog is also contributed by neighboring states which have not strengthened actions on all fronts. Smog is episodic in nature as the smoke due to crop stubble burning in the adjoining states of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh enter the city. However, the impact depends on the wind direction towards Delhi. This year, smog has been contributed to from dust storms in the Middle East.

Consequently, we could target what we could change in India, and prepare state-wise and city-wise action plans to control as well as reduce air pollution from sources and we should not delay control options. In cases, where tighter norms are required, we should implement them in connection with power plants, vehicles, and industries without delay, and, where alternatives are needed (farmers to reduce fires) we should proceed fast. It is a continuous process. There are no shortcuts in achieving and retaining clean air.

Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) is India’s leading not-for-profit public interest research as well as advocacy organisation based in New Delhi, India. CSE is an NGO pioneering as a think tank on environment-development issues in India, such as planning, climate shifts devastating India’s Sundarbans and advocates for policy changes and better implementation of the already existing policies. CSE uses knowledge-based activism to create awareness about problems and propose sustainable solutions. It has been working towards Delhi Air Pollution Control. It is driven by the director Sunita Narain. Its Delhi Air Pollution Control programs are aimed to providing sustainable and long term solutions to Delhi Smog.