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If winter comes…

…Can smog be far behind? If the government doesn’t take comprehensive measures, the sky will again be blotted out by a mix of fog and smoke

It’s not easy to manage a city as big as Delhi. But those who run the city—which means a multiplicity of agencies—never seem to learn from the past. Last winter was one the of the most polluted. Some diplomats were forced to send their families back to save them from the contaminated air. The case was not very different a year before and a year before. And the situation, unfortunately, will not change, in all likelihood, this year as well. The early warning signs are arriving.

As the temperature falls in the capital, the air pollution level starts to rise. There are reports of burning of crops in Punjab and Haryana that forms an impregnable layer of smog. A number of factors come into play, causing air quality to deteriorate — most of them preventable — including vehicular pollution and construction activities. Meteorological factors — like the drop and change in wind speed, which is now flowing from the stubble burning areas, worsen the situation.

A day after the government announced an emergency plan to combat air pollution, which will include measures like mechanised sweeping of roads, ensuring smooth passage of traffic at bottlenecks in Delhi-NCR region and banning the use of gensets, Delhi recorded the most polluted day of the season.

Last weekend, the air quality remained very poor as the haze engulfed the national capital that resulted in the worst air quality of this season. The air quality index (AQI) settled at 324 a day after Dussehra.

An AQI between 0 and 50 is considered good and 51 and 100 satisfactory; 201 and 300 is poor, while 301 and 400 very poor. Anything above 400 is severe.

The reason for this are the serious flaws, as per the experts, in the anti-pollution measures.

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has deployed 41 teams to monitor the implementation of measures taken to combat air pollution. Some of them have raised concern as the point sources that result in long-range pollution, remain unabated.

The problem areas are where excessive construction activities are taking place. For instance, last Saturday, Anand Vihar recorded an AQI of 380, Dwarka Sector 8 registered an AQI of 376, ITO recorded 295 and Jahangirpuri recorded an AQI of 349 and Rohini 353, according to CPCB data. It is predicted that the situation is going to get worse in the days to come.

This is not the case with just the air pollution during winters. There are other examples of benign neglect that makes air, for that matter water and land as well, contaminated and hazardous. Every year, during monsoons, there’s water logging. The waste disposal remains in shambles—the rising garbage hill at Ghazipur is a monument of failure. Yamuna has been reduced to a slow-moving sludge, which will, sooner than later, pose threat to the availability of potable drinking water.

And what is distressing for the citizen of Delhi is that these problems have become endemic. They visit us year after year, if not perennially. And the authorities are found to be woefully unprepared.

Multiplicity of agencies responsible to run Delhi makes things difficult, coordination remains a problem. It also provides an excellent excuse to pass the buck.

Reacting to the recent spate in air pollution levels, the Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, said that Delhi would soon become a gas chamber and the reason for it is that the central and the neighbouring Punjab and Haryana governments were doing “absolutely nothing” to prevent farmers from burning paddy straw. “Very sad that Central, Punjab and Haryana Govts did absolutely nothing for the farmers. As a result, the farmers will suffer on one hand and Delhi will become a gas chamber soon ,” Kejriwal tweeted.

Given the state of environment and governance, Congress President Rahul Gandhi said that the deteriorating air quality is a “serious problem”. He called for collective steps, and sought the cooperation of the people at large to ensure clean air.

“Air pollution in Delhi is a serious problem. It is our responsibility to take the possible steps to reduce the pollution around us. Without the support of countrymen, no government can provide relief from air pollution,” Gandhi wrote in a Facebook post in Hindi.

As is mostly the case, it’s the life of common people that’s affected the most. The school going children are vulnerable. The participants of the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon were exposed to atmospheric pollutants last week. Though traffic police are held responsible for the traffic woes in the capital, it is they who inhale the most fumes and pollutants as they work on an average 12-14 hours a day.

Managing air pollution has become a very hazardous job. Last December, pulmonary function test (PFT) results of traffic policemen showed that 80 of the 516, cops who attended the camp held at the Traffic Police headquarters suffered from breathing problems.

Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world; even China which is famous for its foggy sky is no match for Delhi. Having said that, the South Asian country is the worst region in the world to live as far as air pollution is concerned, especially the cities. The world’s 10 most polluted cities are located in this region.

It’s evident that piecemeal efforts to contain pollution will never add up to a substantial result, and the menace of air pollution, for that matter land and water, will remain a recurring phenomenon.

India is not the first country to deal with these issues. China employed a comprehensive plan to deal with the menace by prohibiting new coal-fired power plants, restricting the number of cars on the road in bigger cities and even shutting down some coal mines, amongst other measures.
Similarly, concerns with the rising air pollution in the US provoked a comprehensive plan—the 1970 enactment. Soon air pollution declined by 20 per cent on an average, but it took concerted efforts over more than a decade to normalise the situation.

Perhaps, New Delhi needs to learn the necessary lessons from its neighbour. Or forget all dreams of becoming a superpower.