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Air pollution: Six years later Delhi still fumbles in the fog

Air pollution: Six years later Delhi still fumbles in the fog

The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war. This is a dictum that applies in reverse to our pollution-control policy. Both—the Central government and the Delhi government—work on air pollution matters only when the pollution is in our lungs and our worthy TV news anchors go hoarse breathing and shouting news about how the quality of air has deteriorated once again. It is another matter they are often hoarse even when pollution levels are negligible, but that’s a different story.

Once again, air pollution has increased dangerously in the national capital and the surrounding north plains, thanks to the onset of winter, stubble burning and a host of other reasons. Since 2014, Delhi and numerous Indian cities have managed effortlessly to retain their top positions in the global air pollution index.

The air is polluted not just during the bad months of October-February; it is all-year-round. It didn’t happen this year though, because of the lockdown in this Year of the Coronavirus. Also, it is not Delhi alone that is breathing poor quality of air; other towns also suffer grievously, though not covered by the media extensively.

If our governments and civic agencies are even a bit serious about governance and public health, they would focus on pollution-mitigation measures during the non-wintry seven months. The wintry months can be the time to see if those measures work and also to rework what did not.

But no, we don't work that way. We begin our pollution control work once the world around us alerts us to the bad air. So, once again, everybody—foreign embassies and media, environmental activists and even US President Donald Trump—is talking about the filthy air. While Trump put it in the global headlines, good old social-media warriors kept their platforms alive through outrage and satire.

It would be good to remind ourselves that this has been an unusual year, thanks to the rapid spread of the coronavirus from Wuhan, China. The Covid-19 infection makes a lunge for the lungs and makes it difficult to breathe. It is a terrible infection that brings with it lifelong vulnerabilities and ill health. As these are newer issues, researchers are still on the job finding out how unhealthy air exacerbates the Covid-19 infection.

A recent study by the US-based Health Effects Institute (HEI) says that India is one of those few countries, along with other South Asian nations, where the entire 100 per cent population lives in areas whose PM2.5 levels are higher than the World Health Organization Air Quality Guidelines. This should also make it clear that the mitigation measures against air pollution need a wholesome effort. Singling out one reason over the others won't help. It is clear by now that the haze and smog that settle down on Delhi and neighboring states during the winter is a dangerous mix of weather phenomena, negligible winds, farm fires, vehicle emissions, and construction & demolition (C&D) dust.

While the weather phenomena and the intensity or winds can't be controlled, the other factors can be worked upon. The construction industry can be made far more efficient while the C&D can be tackled, largely by reining in the inefficient and corrupt civic agencies which have a penchant for demolishing perfectly fine pavements and boundary walls to replace them with newly-bought stones. The demolished C&D ends up being transported to green areas and forests resulting in newer urban development issues.

The farm fires have not been tackled in six years as politics, inefficiency, egos and blame game have taken hold of political parties and our leaders. Meanwhile, people inhale bad air and pay with their health, efficiency and quality of life. Everybody suffers—children, pregnant women, sports persons—just about everyone who breathes.

It will also help if the governments stop felling of trees, grow more plants, reduce wasteful construction, re-using C&D waste, creating more water bodies and revive the Yamuna. As we stand at the threshold of 2021, we must realize that war against air pollution is a 12-month engagement, not to be indulged in only when the air deteriorates.

If we want our efforts to bear fruit in the fight against air pollution, we have to make it a round the year effort. To improve our air, we have to sweat and it not just now, but all through the year. It is time that we come out of the fog of pollution and take up measures to improve the quality of air, and of our lives..