New Delhi entered the “emergency” category in its air quality as it became the world’s most polluted city.
Air quality around New Delhi entered the “emergency” category earlier this month as India’s capital came to top the list of most polluted cities in the world. Following close behind Delhi, as the second most polluted city, is Lahore in Pakistan. In both cities chronic air pollution has come with dangerously high levels of minute pollutants known as PM2.5, which are significantly high in some of the very populated parts of the city.
In some parts of Delhi the level has reached 25 times more than the limit deemed safe by the World Health Organization (WHO). The pollution has forced schools and colleges to shut down, cars to stay off the roads and airplanes to be unable to land at Delhi’s international airport.
The heavily polluted air has pungent smell and makes your eyes water. It induces coughing and breathlessness even in healthy people. The Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, has adopted a policy of limiting the number of cars allowed on roads but that has barely helped to improve the problem. The government is also distributing face masks to locals for outdoor activities.
Yet the problems persist as the level of pollution is still very high. The high number of cars in Delhi, polluting factories around Delhi and stubble burning in neighboring states are all to be blamed for turning the city into a “gas chamber.” The smog, which covers the city, is a cocktail of all these various emissions.
The level of pollution in Delhi intensifies every year starting from mid-October as the air cools and wind speeds drop. Delhi’s geographical location and meteorological conditions are highly unfavorable as the city is located in northern India where the winter temperature drops to around 1̊C with a wind speed of just 1-3 km/h. A recent study shows that pollution levels in Delhi are 40%-80% higher in winter months than during the rest of the year. Low wind speeds with cooler temperatures lead to pockets of airborne pollutants, which trap these pollutants.
The city has more than 10 million vehicles, including cars and trucks, of which many have two-stroke engines. Apart from the high number of vehicles, there are growing numbers of construction projects, brick kilns and coal-fired power plants. To make matters worse, Delhi is surrounded by many industrial zones including agricultural fields in neighboring states, which contribute significantly to an increase in pollution levels.
Stubble burning is a very old practice in northern Indian states and has been blamed as a major cause of poor air quality in New Delhi. According to India’s System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), dust and fumes from fires are flown to Delhi causing it to be the biggest single contributor (46%) of air pollution. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ordered a stop to stubble burning, but the government so far has failed to follow up with farmers on the issue.
Punjab and Haryana, the two closest neighboring states of Delhi, produce a large portion of rice and wheat and serve as the breadbasket of the country. Rice and wheat are water-intensive crops and their production throughout the year causes a lowering of the water table. To prevent a shortage of water Punjab’s government in 2009 enacted the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act.
The introduction of this act forced farmers to postpone their rice production to later in the year during the monsoon, leaving them a very short time to prepare the same fields for wheat cultivation. Most of these farms are run by small-scale farmers who find it difficult to hire a large number of workers or to afford high-end machinery. Hence, many farmers continue to resort to stubble burning, finding it the most suitable way to switch from one crop to another.
All these factors make Delhi’s air pollution one of the biggest problems in the country. Yet despite its severity, the scale of air pollution could be reduced to safe limits with some specific measures. Transitioning to low to zero emissions with proper governance practices are a key. The introduction of electric cars and hydrogen-fueled vehicles as well as the replacing of coal-fired plants with renewables would make a big difference.
An additional solution must involve helping farmers to find an alternate to stubble burning. The governments of Delhi, Punjab and Haryana need to work together, along with citizens and farm owners, to make the capital’s air breathable again.