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Don’t Just Blame Farm Fires, Delhi Has Been Choked by Quest for Votes

The captain’s dig at Delhi CM, on the hindsight, was not without basis. Severe air pollution is a harsh reality that the Delhi government has failed to do anything about despite making big claims.

Sidharth Mishra |

Updated:November 19, 2018, 1:20 PM IST
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Don’t Just Blame Farm Fires, Delhi Has Been Choked by Quest for Votes
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New Delhi: A few weeks ago Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh had questioned his Delhi counterpart Arvind Kejriwal’s wisdom in claiming that stubble burning in Punjab was solely responsible for the high pollution levels in the national capital. He had wondered how Kejriwal, an IIT graduate, could be talking in the most unscientific manner. Singh and Kejriwal are political rivals in Punjab and thus the statement was passed off as another instance of political skirmish.

The captain’s dig at Delhi CM, on the hindsight, was not without basis. Severe air pollution is a harsh reality that the Delhi government has failed to do anything about despite making big claims. The city’s population has today grown to approximately 25 million with a huge floating population, from 1.7 million people in 1947.

Delhi has grown manifold both vertically and horizontally with proportionate rise in the density of population. This growth however has been haphazard and unplanned, facilitated by leaders from almost all the political hues. In their eagerness to win over votes, little did they realise the pressure they would be creating on natural resources, which is limited.

The journey from 1.5 million to 25 million has been at the cost of air and water, which today stands polluted if not poisoned. The spurt in population led to rise of residential colonies, mostly unauthorized without following norms, unplanned industries without pollution check, and unabated increase in the number of vehicles on the road as an unplanned city didn’t have proper public transport.

The unplanned growth damaged natural vegetation cover in the city, which felt enfeebled to counter the pollution which emanated from an ill-planned growth. According to a research carried out by Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Delhi lost 99,850 hectares of forest between 2007 and 2009. Couple this with the population boom the national capital has experienced recently, having become the second most populous city in the world after Tokyo. This has caused a respiration imbalance in the city.

Post liberalisation, consumerism increased and consumer goods like fridge, air conditioner and vehicles were made available to people on easy installments and became accessible to everyone adding to the air pollution to the city. With economic distress prevailing in almost all the north Indian states, though in varying degrees, people kept migrating to Delhi – in search of livelihood.

This perennial influx, while indeed spurred economic activity in the city, also undoubtedly added to the environmental woes. However, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal would not say it, nor did older leaders like Har Kishan Lal Bhagat, Madanlal Khurana or Sahib Singh Verma dared to speak against migration as it would have amounted to political blasphemy. Afterall the unauthorised colonies cover almost 50 percent of Delhi Assembly constituencies.

Had construction in unauthorised colonies not been allowed, the national capital would have been a different city both environmentally and politically. The Supreme Court in April 2018 ordered an immediate stay on all constructions in 1,797 unauthorised colonies that were not in conformity with the building bylaws. Every time the government attempted to regularise any residential settlements that were built either in violation of zoning regulations or on agricultural or public land, it justified the move as a final compromise which would never be repeated. But despite three large-scale regularisation drives and a fourth one in the offing, Delhi’s unauthorised colonies have only grown in numbers and size.

Around 56 years ago, Delhi had just 110 unauthorized colonies with around 221,000 people living in them. Today, it has 1,797 such colonies. According to the Economic Survey of Delhi, at least 5.6 million people live in Delhi slums, illegal colonies, crumbling urban villages and dilapidated buildings. Over the decades, an estimated one-third of the city’s population has found illegal addresses.

While the biggest lure of regularisation is the assurance of legal titles for these unauthorised homes, political leaders also promise connections for sewerage, water and power supply, paved roads, parks, schools, fire-stations and such other components that go into building planned townships. Leaders right from Jagmohan to HKL Bhagat to Madanlal Khurana to Sahib Singh Verma to Sajjan Kumar and many lesser political mortals have been involved in getting these colonies authorized. Yet, officials concede that while basic water and power connections, sanitation services and sewerage can be provided in such areas, retrofitting other infrastructure is difficult due to lack of space with extra pressure on public transport and contributing more and more pollution.

A study released by the World Health Organization (WHO) earlier this year showed that Delhi has the worst air quality in the world. More than 1600 cities across 91 countries were surveyed and it was found that the capital city has the highest concentration of PM2.5 particles—particulate matters with less than 2.5 microns. The concentration of PM2.5 particles is generally used to compare the pollution level in different areas. Delhi has a PM2.5 rating of 153 micrograms, which represents an “unhealthy air quality” that causes “increased respiratory effects in general population”.

Construction site dust typically comprises small particles such as soot and cement and larger particles such as grit, sand and wood dust. Construction activities like extension of the Metro lines across south Delhi and building of residential areas in eastern and western parts of the city degrade the air quality. In addition to this, factories in and on the outskirts of Delhi release toxic chemicals that contaminate the air.

A study by Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 2013 showed that industries and thermal power plants contribute to 29 per cent of the total air pollution in Delhi. In the industrial area of Okhla, maximum amount of particulate matter (2,118.45 micrograms per cubic metre) was found. Nickel and cadmium have been found in Delhi's air. Main source of these metals is industries, Factories are not in abundance in Delhi, but they have emerged as a big source of health concern.

Delhi is flooded with cars and 1400 new ones are added to this tally on a daily basis.

Introduction of CNG vehicles at the beginning of the century had “cleaned the city’s air”, but statistics show that Delhi’s pollution has increased five times over the past eight years. Moreover, thousands of trucks that make way into the city late at night are responsible for 65 percent of the total particulate matter in Delhi’s air. Most of them enter the city unregulated, despite a Supreme Court order to keep them out of the capital. Two more relating factors that cause air pollution are the fuel pumps and sale of adulterated fuel in Delhi. The fuel pumps don’t have a Vapor Recovery System (VRS) that helps in limiting the release of pollutants into the air like in western countries, while use of adulterated fuel increases emissions.

Geographically, Delhi also suffers from the atmospheric dust blown in from the deserts of the western state of Rajasthan and the polluted air that makes way from the industries and burning farms of neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab.

With so much pollution in Delhi, the apex court-mandated body suggested that all non-CNG vehicles, including all private cars and two-wheelers in NCR, be barred from roads if pollution levels spike again. It clearly means grounding more than 92 per cent of Delhi’s 10.8 million registered vehicles, leaving the capital at the mercy of its inadequate bus fleet, its still-in-the-making Metro network and its poor last-mile connectivity.

There is a need to understand, as mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, that air pollution is also caused by industry as well because most of the air pollution is not due to vehicular movement. Main contributors to particulate matter in the PM 10 range, as a recent study shows are road dust (50 per cent) and industry (23 per cent) while vehicles accounted for just 7 per cent. But the Delhi government failed miserably on these counts as it had promised to do away with road dust and also take some action on industries. The toxic level of air pollution is creating quite a menace which is added by changing weather conditions that have locked pollutants in the air and made the situation worse.

Reasons for pollutions are varied and disparate as geography of Delhi is, and farm fires from neighbouring states are a part of the contributing factors and not the only contributory influence. What has added to the crisis is the inability of the Delhi government to address the issue in advance with positive mindset and mistaken priorities of CM Arvind Kejriwal, who focused fully on his ambition of becoming a national leader consigning the needs to provide governance to the people who voted him to power, to dustbowls.

But Kejriwal is not the lone accused, Delhi has largely been failed by its political leadership since the 1980s. In quest for votes, they have allowed the city to choke.

(The writer is a senior journalist and political analyst)

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