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Pollution season: Is Delhi ready?

Burning of crops in southeast Punjab – a major driver of northern India’s pollution crisis. (Image credit, Neil Palmer (CIAT) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (])
Authorities in Delhi have been instructed to formulate easily implementable plans for pollution control in the national capital’s pollution hotspots, as the winter – a time associated with intense air pollution in the city – arrives. 

“Our focus this year has to be implementation of action plans on hotspots. However, these action plans cannot be executed in the present state,” said Sunita Narain, a member of the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA), which delivered the instructions to the Delhi Pollution Control Committee and the Central Pollution Control Board. “We need action immediately and on the ground so that the spikes are controlled ahead of Diwali and during the crop stubble burning period.”

The EPCA identifies thirteen pollution hotspots in Delhi: Okhla Phase-II, Narela, Bawana, Mundka, Punjabi Bagh, Dwarkar, Wazirpur, Rohini, Vivek Vihar, Anand Vihar, R. K. Puram, Jahangirpuri, and Ashok Vihar. In addition, throughout the National Capital Region, hotspots have been identified in Faridabad, Gurgaon, Bahadurgarh, Bhiwadi, and Sahibabad. 

Existing plans have been deemed too ‘detailed’ for immediate implementation by the EPCA and concrete actions that can be undertaken with immediate effect are needed. “We need two action plans for each hotspot, one that can be implemented through this winter and one that is immediate, listing all actions that can be undertaken this month,” explained Narain. 

Pollution is a major issue affecting environmental health in the national capital, although some data suggests improvements have been witnessed in recent years. Even one day after Dussehra celebrations earlier this week, Delhi recorded its cleanest air in five years. 

Smog shrouds the Sri Lanka Buddhist Pilgrim Rest House in Delhi, rendering it barely visible. Image credit: Sumita Roy Dutta [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]
Meanwhile, the state government under Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal claimed a 25 percent reduction in air pollution. “Delhi is the only city where pollution is going down instead of increasing,” the Chief Minister tweeted. “But we have to reduce it further.” The purported 25 percent reduction has been attributed to government policies, such as expanded access to electricity, the Graded Response Action Plan, and fines imposed on violators of dust regulations. 

However, the 25 percent claim has come under fire. A report published in questioned the accuracy of the data, writing that the state government claimed “levels of PM 2.5 – or particulate matter the size of 2.5 microns – had reduced to an average of 115 between 2016 and 2018 from an average of 154 between 2012 and 2014….But’s analysis found that the government has submitted different sets of pollution data to the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.” 

As the report goes on to note, “in the Rajya Sabha on February 11, Minister of Health and Family Welfare Harsh Vardhan furnished data on the average PM 2.5 levels while answering a question on the “deteriorating air quality in Delhi”. Vardhan’s answer stated that the annual average for PM 2.5 levels was 135 in 2016, 124 in 2017 and 115 in 2018. He attributed the numbers to “available data”. These numbers vary from the ones that appeared in the Lok Sabha a few months later.”

Throughout the year, reports, differing datasets have been proffered to lawmakers by different ministers and officials, contradicting one another and the 25 percent claim of the Delhi government. Data from the Central Pollution Control Board indicated a fifteen percent reduction in PM2.5 pollution levels, with a Delhi Pollution Control Committee official quoted by the publication stating “it can be debated how the claim of 25 percent was made.” Gaps in the data cited and used have been pinpointed as a culprit. “Such gaps do not allow us to reach conclusions about whether such policies have worked or not,” said Hem Dholakia of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, quoted by

“Air pollution experts agree that there is no data available – at least in the public domain – that clearly validates the chief minister’s claims of a 25 percent reduction in pollution as measured by [the] concentration of the deadly microparticulate, PM2.5,” journalist Jyoti Pande Lavakare, who co-founded the non-profit organisation Clean Air Care, told The Wire. “However, this isn’t to say that Kejriwal is lying to the people – pollution may just have actually reduced slightly. But unless independent data analysts, air pollution scientists and researchers are able to access to the data which Kejriwal is using to make this claim, no one can say whether this is just another piece of fake news in a post-truth world, a manipulation of cherry-picked statistics or this is indeed true.” 

Copyright: richie0703 / 123RF Stock Photo
Smog surrounds the Red Fort in Delhi.

Rigorous measurement of air quality levels is necessary if further improvements are to be made, as policymakers and officials require an accurate appraisal of which interventions work and which need to be worked upon. This is especially important going into the winter, when a coalescence of factors – the burning of stubble by farmers in adjacent states, weather conditions, and the delayed withdrawal of this year’s monsoon – tend to result in air quality levels dropping. 

Kejriwal is cognisant of these factors. “We need to prepare for smog due to crop burning and the winters,” he has said, announcing a seven-point plan to tackle pollution which includes pollution masks, the use of lasers in lieu of fireworks during Diwali, control of pollution at hotspots, and dust control. “After the parali season ends,” he said, “the Winter Action Plan will be implemented. Other than Odd Even and community Diwali celebration, all other measures will continue throughout the winter season.” 

In 2017, air quality plummeted in Delhi to the extent that Kejriwal described the city as a “gas chamber.” Mitigating pollution and alleviating the city’s air quality woes is vitally needed, making any improvement in the city’s air quality welcome news. India lost 2.1 million lives to air pollution in 2017. Across the country, in rural and urban areas alike, concerted efforts are needed to control the menace for the sake of the populace. 

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