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Delhi pollution: Supreme Court fumes as the city chokes

Top view of the city street in the poor quarter of new Delhi. Air pollution and smog in crowded cities.
Delhi blanketed by smog.

Delhi pollution has reached “unbearable” levels in the words of Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, amidst plummeting air quality and the worst smog the National Capital Region has witnessed in almost three years. 

According to the Central Pollution Control Board, Delhi pollution – based on a 24-hour average – stood at 494 on the Air Quality Index (AQI) at 16:00 on Sunday, November 3rd. This was the highest since November 6, 2016’s AQI reading of 497. The handling of the matter by officials has been castigated by the Supreme Court, critiquing “the state machinery is not acting… they are passing the buck to each other… whether the Centre should do or Delhi should do… it can’t go on like this. It’s too much.” 

“Things are happening every year under our [noses],” said the bench. “People are being advised to not come to Delhi or to leave Delhi. State governments are responsible. People are dying in their state and neighbouring states. We will not tolerate this. We are making a mockery of everything. 

“Delhi is choking every year and we are not able to do anything. Question is that every year this is happening. People are dying and it can’t happen in a civilised country.” 

Adding to the criticism, Justice Arun Misha questioned “can we survive in this atmosphere? This is not the way we can survive. No one is safe even inside [their] homes; it is atrocious.” 

The Supreme Court, which is calling on state governments to ensure access to healthcare for sufferers of rare diseases.
“Delhi is choking every year and we are not able to do anything. Question is that every year this is happening. People are dying and it can’t happen in a civilised country.” The Supreme Court issued harsh words amidst the Delhi pollution crisis. 

Pollution was responsible for 1.2 million lives being lost in 2017 and is linked to rising rates of a plethora of diseases, reduced life expectancy, and substantial economic loss. India is home to 22 of the thirty most polluted cities in the world. Seven Indian cities feature in the top ten, with Delhi suburb Gurugram topping the list. 

Amidst the Delhi pollution crisis, an advisory has been issued by the state government with advice for citizens on how to safeguard their health and wellbeing. Use of masks, avoidance of outdoor physical activity, opting for public transport, and keeping doors and windows closed during mornings and evenings are among the steps they encourage. Those experiencing symptoms such as breathlessness, irritation of the eyes, and coughing have been exhorted to seek medical attention. 

The Delhi government has repeatedly blamed the practice of stubble burning – when farmers burn crop residue in lieu of having it properly disposed of – in neighbouring states for the Delhi pollution crisis. This practice sees between seven and eight million metric tonnes of crop residue incinerated every year, principally in Haryana and Punjab.

“From February to October 15 there was no pollution,” Kejriwal told NDTV. “The sky was blue and clear. What happened in twenty days? Crores of vehicles did not enter Delhi or lakhs of industries weren’t opened. In these twenty days stubble burning from nearby states has polluted Delhi’s air.” He refuted allegations that the Delhi government had provided insufficient assistance to farmers to prevent crop burning and instead spent crores of rupees on advertisements, stating “the Centre lies so much we cannot believe anything they say.” 

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 (])
Last week, according to the Centre’s System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting (SAFAR), crop burning was responsible for 46 percent of the Delhi pollution. The remainder was accounted for by local sources. This came as a public health emergency was declared by the Environment (Pollution Control and Prevention) Authority (EPCA), when AQI readings for the NCR crossed the 500 mark – designated as “severe plus” – instigating the Supreme Court hearing on the matter. 

According to the EPCA last week, year-on-year Delhi governments have been able to effect improvements in combating air pollution since 2010. However, to bring Delhi pollution levels and air quality in the NCR in-line with national standards, a further 65 percent reduction in air pollution is necessary. 

Among the measures taken by the Delhi government is an odd-even scheme to reduce the number of cars on the road (rolled out this week); issuance of gas masks (the distribution of fifty lakh of which was announced last week); a moratorium on construction activity and operations of fossil fuel-powered plants in emergency crises; and banning diesel generator sets. The closure of schools and colleges until November 5th was also announced last week to protect children from the smog. In addition, 300 teams have been dispatched by the Centre to enforce rules and norms addressing pollution including vigilance against crop residue burning. 

Chief Minister of Rajasthan Ashok Gehlot, whose state has been affected by the pollution, joined the chorus of figures speaking out on pollution affecting his state, stating “it is a health emergency, which only the Delhi government cannot solve alone. Centre has to take the lead.” 

Concurring, Kejriwal tweeted that “pollution has reached unbearable levels across North India. [The] Delhi government [has] taken many steps. Delhiites have made many sacrifices…suffering for no fault of theirs…[the] Centre should take immediate steps to provide relief. We will support [the] Centre in all initiatives.” 

He added, “we will have to rise above party lines to find solutions. pollution is a pan-North India problem and needs a collective regional effort led by the Centre.”

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