Opinion Papers

Wednesday November 11, 2020

Update - Air Pollution November 2020

Author:  Adit Jain, IMA India November 2020

Burning in hell

The issues that really matter are the ones which, in our system of governance, seem the hardest to grapple with. Leading the pack is the hazardous air condition in Delhi and its surrounding areas. Despite the earnest intervention of courts, the problem remains unresolved and may remain so for years to come. The combination of factors that create it are simply too ingrained. The tragedy is that the loss of life that results as a consequence of the rotten air is much more than pandemics and other more widely publicised calamities. The harm to the economy is only collateral damage. At the time of writing this paper, the AQI index stood at 613, a figure beyond the scales of what constitutes acceptable.

A survey by the World Health Organisation of 1,650 cities across the globe, suggested Delhi as being the worst. There are others in India, too, that share such indignities and collectively, they manage to kill over 2 million people a year, a figure several times higher than what Covid 19, with all its flare, managed to achieve. Further, the WHO research suggests that pollution irrevocably damages the lungs of 2.2 million children.

Scientists squabble as to what creates the disaster and the role of each culprit in the process. But most agree that it is a combination of a few factors. Leading the pack is the stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana of over 35 million tonnes of crop residue, with the air drifting south. Vehicular pollutants too add to the misery, as does construction dust. The response of the Delhi government is absurd with knee jerk bans on the use of generators – despite the frequent electricity breakdowns – and a ban on the use of cars, defined by number plates, which does little more than further inconvenience industry and households. None of the real problems are easy to tackle specifically where politicians find it hard to clamp down on their constituents. Farmers find the risk of burning crops the more tenable proposition, considering the minor penalties were they to be caught. Vehicular pollution is the effect of development and burgeoning of the human population.

Vertical metropolises work well in breezy locations. Delhi, on the other hand, has stagnant air for the months following the monsoons until nearly end January. It is cursed with poor geography as it lies to the north-east of the Thar desert and to the south-west of the Himalayas. As winds arrive from the coasts, bringing with them pollutants picked up along the way, they get trapped by the Himalayas. This entrapment affects not only Delhi, but the entire stretch of the Indo-Gangetic plain. Dust is carried from the Thar but often from further away too. Some studies suggest that a significant proportion of particulate pollution in Delhi, on certain days, could be sourced to dust storms in the Middle East. The burning of crops does the rest.

Currently, conditions remain tragic, with hospitals reporting thousands of respiratory complaints. In the longer term, new investment in the region will be affected, as companies start finding it harder to recruit or retain employees. Foreign investors have begun to add pollution to the growing list of gripes on the challenges of doing business, together with infrastructure and an over enthused bureaucracy. Some problems can never be fixed and it increasingly seems that Delhi’s hazardous air is possibly one of them. Man can do little for those that the Heavens forsake.