Air Pollution Rising Again in Delhi –10 years After it Was Named ‘Most Polluted City’ 
Pollution levels are rising in India’s capital, Delhi.

There have been some gains in the past decade, but peak pollution is still 30 times WHO’s safe limit. Top Delhi government advisor Reena Gupta speaks with Health Policy Watch about progress and obstacles.

Come October and millions of people in and around Delhi brace for a sharp rise in pollution in the last quarter of the year and on cue, the level of PM 2.5, a critical microscopic air pollutant that is usually the best measure of air quality, has already tripled from a month earlier. 

It’s been 10 years since the World Health Organization (WHO) deemed the city to be the most polluted in the world – even worse than Beijing whose air was notorious at the time. 

Although there has been progress, Delhi is still often labelled as the most polluted capital in the world. Back then, the annual average of PM 2.5 was 149 micrograms per cubic metre. Now it’s about 100, an improvement of a third. But between October and December 2022, the average was almost 160, which is over 30 times the WHO’s safe limit. This year could be worse, experts warn.

Reena Gupta, the national spokesperson of Delhi’s governing party, Aam Aadmi Party.

To understand why pollution is still so bad, Health Policy Watch spoke with Reena Gupta, the national spokesperson of Delhi’s governing party, Aam Aadmi Party (‘common person’s party’). She represented the state government at the United Nations (UN) Climate Week in mid-September in New York and has previously worked at the World Bank as a Natural Resource Management Specialist. As a top advisor to the government on environmental and air pollution matters, she recently held a meeting with experts and civil society representatives. 

Dirty industries shift out of Delhi’s jurisdiction

Delhi is doing its bit, according to Gupta – even at the cost of losing revenue to reduce pollution. She cites a recent study which shows only about a third of the pollution sources are within the megacity’s boundary. 

“In Delhi, we have converted all the industry to clean (sic) and natural gas. Why has that not happened in Gurgaon and Ghaziabad [which border Delhi]?

“Also what has happened is, because we are so strict in the industrial areas of Delhi, the industries actually move to Gurgaon and Ghaziabad. They move just outside Delhi because they want to be outside the control of Delhi Pollution Control Board and they set it up on the outskirts of Delhi and continue to pollute the air shed of Delhi. So we lost the revenue but our airshed didn’t get cleaned.”

The responsibility for cleaning the air in Delhi and its neighbouring areas rests with a statutory body called the Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM). It is headed by a retired bureaucrat and has the authority to direct over a hundred officials, including police across this vast region with a population of over 70 million.

“It’s a bureaucratic body,” says Gupta, who describes it as “very ineffective”.

“You don’t have any politicians there. The people in CAQM will continue to draw their salaries whether the air pollution improves or doesn’t improve. However, if you had a body where you had ministers who were accountable to the people, then you would see more action.” 

Gupta advocates for an air quality centre that is parallel to India’s Goods and Services Tax (GST) Council, where the centre can play the leading political role. 

Led by India’s finance minister, the GST Council includes finance ministers from the states and meets frequently to jointly administer the landmark regime which helped unify India as a single market for most goods and services. 

The council’s work may have its critics but its continued existence is seen as an example of how India’s federal structure can work in an otherwise very divisive political landscape. 

“In the GST Council, at least you have all the finance ministers and everybody comes and gives their opinion because they know that they have to go back and be accountable to the people. CAQM is not accountable to anybody,” AAP’s national spokesperson says. The AAP and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) , Prime Minister Modi’s party, are bitter political rivals. 

Another alternative for the centre, she says, is to do what China did – incentivise city authorities. 

“In China you had these regional bodies which set targets for cities and for so, for example, the Central government was to tell Delhi, Gurgaon, Noida, Ghaziabad, any cities that it thinks of, to reduce your PM2.5 by 10% in the next two to three years and an additional 1,000 crore rupees (10 billion rupees) can be given from an environment fund.”

‘Can’t shut schools, can’t cut Metro fares’

There are questions over the Delhi government’s own strategy to speedily reduce air pollution in its jurisdiction. 

Why, for instance, aren’t schools closed when air pollution turns hazardous? Children can be seen walking into school when PM 2.5 levels are well over 100-200 micrograms. This toxic pollutant is linked to inhibiting the development of young lungs and cognition apart from causing respiratory diseases. 

Why aren’t fares to the metro train service slashed specially during high pollution times? This could incentivise many to move away from private vehicles as vehicular pollution is significant – contributing around 41% of air pol;ution, according to one study.

But Gupta says her government doesn’t have the authority to cut fares even though they wanted to. 

“The Metro right now is very, very expensive for people, for 70% of the population of Delhi. So we wanted to decrease the metro fares. That was rejected by the Central government. Because of Delhi’s complicated structure, some of these reforms are very difficult for us to implement.” 

Delhi is a union territory not a state and, as such, the Central government, led by the rival BJP, has overriding powers over Delhi despite the city having its own elected legislature and government.

If cutting metro fares is out, so is closing schools. Gupta explains this doesn’t make sense because most of the kids – 70-80% she reckons – live in “one-room” houses. 

“Those parents want the kids to come to school because their argument is that it’s not as if at home they have air purifiers, it’s not as if at home they have any better air quality. So they would rather have their children in school. Whereas the rich of the city probably feel that their kids are more protected at home and sitting with air purifiers. And as a government we found that there is not that much of a difference in terms of the air quality at homes or in schools.”

Private vehicles priority over public transit?

There are, however, deeper questions about AAP’s focus on public transit. For decades better public transit has been linked to air quality. AAP has been continuously in power in Delhi since 2015 and boasts of constructing 27 new flyovers and widening roads. The city now has the most road space in its land use plan amongst Indian cities. 

Yet it has been slow in adding buses despite a Supreme Court order, made in 1998, for 10,000 more buses to purchased to improve air quality. Twenty-five years later,  the population has grown and some estimate over 20,000 buses are now needed. 

 Currently, although there’s a plan to rapidly add more electric buses, there are still fewer than 8,000 buses for the entire city of almost 33 million residents. 

Gupta, however, denies that her government’s priorities are misplaced. 

“I disagree. The focus is on public transport. The focus is on increasing the metro connectivity, the focus is on increasing the last mile connectivity because unless we improve that, we will not be able to get the rich people to leave their cars.” 

She blames the opposition for complaining about the procurement which delayed the process. 

Too many plans, too many cooks?

The capital’s air crisis invariably makes the headlines this time of year, and often draws the attention of India’s top court and recently even the Prime Minister’s Office

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, announced a 15-point programme to reduce air pollution in the capital. Some involve direct action against pollution sources, such as monitoring over a dozen “hotspots” and deploying 600 teams to stop the burning of garbage. 

There is also an app where the public can post complaints and a “war room” set up by the government. However, experts point out, enough isn’t being done to actually stop sources of pollution. 

Some of the other measures raise questions of implementation and impact. The plan includes planting ten million saplings, although the ideal time do so was a few months ago mid-monsoon; a ban on fireworks, which has repeatedly failed in the past couple of years; hundreds of ‘smog guns’ and sprinklers to spray water in a bid to suppress pollutants, the efficacy of which has been questioned; almost 400 teams to check pollution-under-control certificates (PUCs) for vehicles, but this doesn’t check for PM 2.5 even though vehicles can contribute to about a third or more of Delhi’s PM 2.5 pollution. 

Apart from the state government, there is also central government’s Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) overseen by the CAQM. Each time the Indian air quality index deteriorates and crosses certain benchmarks, the CAQM orders tighter controls. For example, ‘GRAP 1’ is implemented when the air quality index (AQI) crosses 201. 

GRAP has been a dynamic programme although further studies are needed to show whether this is conclusively reducing pollution. 

For the last two years it’s been implemented since 1 October, perhaps to have protocols in place for quicker reaction as pollution spikes from mid-October. This is when multiple factors – including cooler temperatures and low wind speed which trap pollutants, crop stubble being burnt and festive firecrackers – make the air extremely hazardous to breathe. 

Several studies have linked even short term exposures to PM 2.5 pollutants to strokes, heart attacks and respiratory problems. Incidentally most of the stubble fires that affect Delhi are in Punjab, where Gupta’s party is in power. The state promised to halve the number of fires compared to last year but at the time of writing this the number had already exceeded last year’s count.

Significant changes

A significant change has been to base action on Air Quality Index (AQI) forecasts in Delhi rather than waiting for pollution to worsen and then take action. 

Other changes this year included a complete ban on diesel generators – only for this to be eased two days before imposition; a ban on burning coal and firewood in all restaurants, at the very first stage of GRAP unlike earlier; “strict restrictions” for the first time on certain types of vehicles operating on old fuel standards (which largely follow the Euro standards.) 

For all the political tension between the AAP and the BJP,  there is commonality in their pollution-control plans. Both back the ban on firecrackers, both press for planting more trees and drivers turning off vehicles at a stop light. Neither explicitly links the closure of schools to rising pollution but tacitly permits this when the pollution hits the “Severe” or “Severe +” benchmarks, levels that are extremely high even by Delhi’s poor record. 

Fireworks ban a mega-fail

The firecracker ban, specially during Diwali but also in other festive occasions, has failed repeatedly, despite having the official concurrence of the central and state governments, the Supreme Court and even the city police. 

“The regional issue comes into play, right? You have a firecracker ban in Delhi but you don’t have a ban in (next-door) Noida, how is it going to be effective?” asks Gupta.

“If the crackers are sold, people will buy and they will burst it. So I think in this also, we as citizens need to take ownership. How many policemen can you actually have on the ground that day to say that crackers should not be burnt?”

Banning firecrackers on Diwali also tends to be politically contentious. The BJP protested that this can hurt “religious sentiments” but their protest was overruled by the Supreme Court. 

No help for poor migrants burning biomass to cook

AAP’s Gupta points out another source of pollution: impoverished migrants coming to Delhi for better prospects, and burning biomass to cook food. 

“Some of the surveys that we did showed us that, because of poverty rates going up, a lot of migration is happening to Delhi right now,” said Gupta.

“So we looked into this whole idea that is it possible for the Delhi government at least to give subsidised (cooking gas) cylinders to some of our people who are living in the slums. We went very deep into it, but it would have been very difficult to implement because it would have been almost impossible to figure out who is a resident of Delhi and operationally it would have been very difficult. So we gave up that idea.”


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