The problem of air pollution in Delhi has scaled new heights this season. Air pollution is a palpable and immediate manifestation of the severe environmental crisis the country is facing. For far too long, this environmental crisis has been an invisible and slow genocidal killer, but now its effects are out in the open. Since 2015-16, the Delhi air pollution in the winter season has become a near emergency issue. Every winter, for the last few years, Delhi becomes a ‘gas chamber’, Air Quality Index levels scale extremely severe heights of pollution and this time a health emergency was declared as well.
But a frivolous discourse around this issue is masking the real causes of the problem viz. the short-term, selfish utilitarian lifestyle and consumption choices we have made, our mode of living as well as our extractive and relentless economic mode of production. In the pursuit of GDP, jobs, social status and so-called glorified metropolitan culture, we have taken upon ourselves this problem by the complete decimation of our environment, of which air pollution is only one part.
The Current Emergency in Delhi
In recent years, Delhi has frequently begun to feature as the most polluted city in the world, usually during the winter season. According to a report released in March this year, 7 out of the 10 most polluted cities in the world were in India, as per pollution levels measured by PM 2.5 pollutant concentrations (ET Online, 2019). This early November, Delhi broke all records as it continued to be in the ‘hazardous’ range of air pollution for nine consecutive days, with such a prolonged spell of pollution never been seen before since public records began (Livemint, 2019).
Air Quality Index (AQI) range Interpretation
Source: AQI India (2019)
The pollution levels in Delhi were so severe that on some days they even breached the AQI charts, trending above the level of 500, and touching ranges between 700-900 in some places.
Every winter season most of the blame for pollution is placed on crop burning in Punjab and Haryana. Both the states sow, transplant and harvest rice or paddy between June to October/November months.1 As soon as October is nearing its end and the Rabi season begins, the fields have to be cleared for the next wheat crop. Since the time gap – between the harvesting of paddy and sowing of wheat – has become shorter over the years, farmers do not have enough time or technology to do something about the left-over rice stalk or stubble. Thanks to the use of pesticides and fertilizers, the length of the stalk and its hardness in texture has also increased, it cannot be fed to the cattle or dumped and there is no easy way to get rid of it except through crop burning.
1 (As per a 2009 law passed in Punjab assembly, the date of sowing rice will be notified by the government. This legislation is related to conserving sub-soil/ground water, since rice requires extensive amount of water, resulting in water crisis. The very fact that states like Punjab and Haryana began to grow paddy in the first place is itself a result of post-Green Revolution era of fertilizers, chemicals and unparalleled production.
As a result of implementation of this 2009 law, the date of sowing has been postponed to middle of July, so that during the peak summer season, the state does not face water shortages. As a result, the date of harvesting also gets postponed to late October-early November.
When crop burning begins to take place during this time, the flow of wind is towards Delhi. Also, during winter the dissipation of polluted air is much less and the pollution settles down, creating a virtual gas chamber kind of effect, with the atmosphere trapping all the polluted air.)
Even technologies like ‘Happy seeder’ – a machine which simultaneously gets rid of rice stubble even as it automatically sows wheat – has not worked out, because of its costs and also because its performance on the ground has been full of poor quality issues. Various other solutions like converting this left-over stalk to ethanol are also prohibitively expensive and cannot work unless the government and companies are fully embedded and a whole new market/supply chain is created for rice stubble.
The reason there have been such extensive debates on what to do about the rice stubble is because during the months of October-November, crop burning becomes one of the major seasonal factors contributing to pollution in Delhi-NCR. However, stubble burning occurs for 15-20 days and during that time pollution touches peak levels and only during the days when it is burnt, stubble burning contributes about 30-40% to Delhi pollution. Other than that, as a whole, the contribution of stubble burning to Delhi air pollution is only about 4-5% (Jain, 2018). This year during the days of crop burning, the share of stubble burning to Delhi’s air pollution touched the highest-ever level at 46% (PTI, 2019).
This clearly means that the seasonal factor of stubble burning has made visible and obvious a problem that would otherwise have remained an invisible killer, and, would have otherwise given us a convenient excuse to continue as usual by ignoring the problem. The sheer condition of the Delhi-NCR during the few days of stubble burning is such that visibility becomes low and one can literally smell and taste the polluted air palpably. No amount of data and theoretical warnings/predictions can compare with the real sensory experience when it is upon us.
But the real culprits of the long-term effect of pollution are the polluting industrial setup, and, the unmitigated population and vehicle growth in the city. To continute to blame a phenomenon which lasts 15-20 days and has actually opened our eyes to the pollution problem should not become an excuse to ignore the polluting economy that has made the pollution problem a near-permanent feature all the year round in Delhi.
The Endless Greed
In the current discourse on air pollution that is prevailing today, what stands out clearly is not only the tendency to skirt the root causes and give frivolous suggestions, but also to derive as much selfish political mileage as possible out of this enviornmental crisis. In recent times, the severity of pollution that has engulfed Delhi-NCR making survival itself a question stands out in stark contrast to the huge advertisements put out by the Delhi government with insincere claims and self-congratulations about how much they have reduced the Delhi pollution (with no reference to monthly or yearly average baselines, so as to make numbers look impressive and fool the public).
Vast areas of Delhi have concentrated pockets of heaps of huge mountains of stinking landfills, water quality is bad and now pollution has become a life-threatening crisis. At a time when breathing Delhi’s air is being compared to smoking 40 cigarettes a day, it is ironical that the Delhi government should be in a self-congratulatory mode over controlling pollution.
Piecemeal measures like ‘odd-even’ vehicle plying scheme was implemented for some days with much pomp and grandeur. Theoretical measures about changing institutions and policies were spoken about. For some time, the Supreme Court-established Environmental Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) mandated new strict measures under Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) – such as time-limits for operating diesel generators, temporarily shutting down polluting coal-based thermal power plants etc. New vehicle registrations standards were mandated – from BS-IV to BS-VI – and supply chains for electric vehicles are being spoken about.
To give an added verbal backbone and limelight to these measures, the courts and the National Green Tribunal (NGT) would periodically make tough statements – including strictures on banning firecrackers around Diwali – berating the government for its inaction and lamenting the loss of human lives.
But through all of this talk of practical and theoretical wisdom, the real backbone of the polluting economy which has contributed to this pollution in the first place has remained untouched. It is worth questioning if it is simply sufficient to undertake temporary minimalistic measures every season when winter is around the corner – an attitude which is akin to pushing the real issue under the carpet, so that the system does not change.
In Delhi alone, the total number of vehicles has increased from 4.2 million in 2004 to 11 million by March 2018 (Raman & Mukerjee, 2019). These vehicles are responsible for about 41% of the total pollution in Delhi (Livemint, 2019). The massive growth in the number of vehicles on the road has coupled with the attraction of Delhi – as with other big metropolitan cities like Mumbai – as the hub of the modern service economy of India.
Its attraction of jobs and its material vitality has made it a prime attraction for skilled migrants from small towns, who can very well afford a middle-class lifestyle. The population of NCR increased from 16.6 million in 2001 to 46 million in 2011 – a nearly 11% annual growth rate, coupled with the rise in fast food industry, construction activities, thermal power plants and various other polluting industries (Raman & Mukerjee, 2019).
Source: Jain (2018)
Source: Jain (2018)
This hub of economic activity, incentivized by perverse consumption choices, have contributed not just to air pollution, but also to overall environmental, moral and psychological degradation.
Today, Delhi – a symbol of sheer and excessive vitalistic materialism and crude competitiveness which makes it indistinguishable from any other foreign metropolis like London – is staring at an alarming future. Not only has an issue like pollution now made survival a major question in Delhi, but the illusion of the present economic system has also landed the prospects of jobs in a crisis situation, since the below par and sub-standard quality of youth – despite, or rather, in proportion to their high degrees – being produced by the present system is being rejected by the market.
But this vitalistic fetish for the fulfillment of desires, ambitions, comforts and material wants is all that Delhi had begun to symbolize during the last two decades. The pollution and environmental crisis that has engulfed so many cities in the country today is a result of our consumption and production choices which are further fully supported and subsidized by vote-bank politics.
Any basic attempt to deal with environmental problems are thwarted by powerful lobbies who bring their own vote-banks. For instance, in recent months, farmers in various states (especially Haryana) went on a defiant path, insisting that the only solution to the productivity crisis in agriculture was to plant more Genetically Modified (GM) crops. Lobbies of farmers and scientists are carefully cultivated by big multinationals to bring in supposed policy changes – such as creation of a GM food market – which would ultimately run contrary to collective interest. For governments – however well-intentioned – to stand up to such lobbies is extremely difficult in a so-called democratic political setup.
In a democratic setup – especially one like India – where the next election is all that matters, what we usually end up with is helpless frivolous rhetoric on environmental problems like pollution, public gimmicks or else short-term measures like ‘odd-even scheme’ which are of no use if implemented for just 10 days for the sake of appeasing the public. But due to the strong corporate and social lobbies, it is impossible to bring in changes in national interest, since any such change will finish off some lobby or the other. The recent hue and cry over falling automobile sales is a case in point. Despite the fact that we have nearly exhausted the household capacity for holding automobiles, there was still a big backlash that a market like India should be slipping away from the clutches of a particular industry.
In the case of Delhi and rest of India, we find it difficult to permanently shut down polluting thermal power plants or doing something about their inefficiency and outdated processes which lead to more pollution. In Delhi, at the worst levels of pollution, the GRAP this time talks about temporarily halting their operations and regulating the timing of diesel generators for just some days. These are such temporary token measures that they cannot be counted on to have any impact
Contrast this with China’s approach to air pollution. China may not be a democracy in the sense of a modern multi-party system with thousands of lobbies tearing the government apart in various directions and each wanting a piece of flesh for itself. But it is certainly more systematic, cultured and able to work in the national interest than most other countries, which do not even know how to define their national interest. China has been able to reduce its air pollution levels by shutting down polluting and inefficient industries and coal-based power plants.
But in India, such attempts have failed and require much more effort and resources, a lot of which is likely to go into corruption at lower levels. We justify this inaction and production of substandard output by the name of economic growth and development, and, decorate its vicious process of competition by the name of democracy. With such a cornered approach, India will always find itself a victim of, both, trade imbalances as well as environmental disasters, since no decisive action can be made possible without harming some vested group or industry.
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Jain, P. (2018, November 1). India Today. Retrieved from
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Raman, A., & Mukerjee, P. (2019, November 4). Down To Earth. Retrieved from