23/02/2015 8:16 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Dirty Air, Murky Politics And The AAP's Delhi Pollution Challenge

A news report in January claimed that President Obama's life span suffered a six-hour cut in less than three days during his trip to Delhi, believed to have the most polluted air in the world. Now, the Aam Aadmi Party's (AAP) landslide victory gives it the perfect mandate to clean up Delhi's air. But, the labyrinth of issues related to Delhi's air pollution makes it a Herculean task.

Cows are covered in smoke rising from burning garbage in New Delhi, India, Friday, Oct. 17, 2014. India launched the Air Quality Index Friday to measure air quality across the nation that is home to some of the most polluted cities in the world. It will measure eight major pollutants that impact respiratory health in cities with populations exceeding 1 million in the next five years and then gradually the rest of the country, Environment Minister Prakash told reporters. The World Health Organization said earlier this year that the Indian capital had the worst air quality in the world, surpassing Beijing, a statement that New Delhi has vehemently disputed. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

A news report in January claimed that President Obama's life span suffered a six-hour cut in less than three days during his trip to Delhi, and the culprit was none other than the city's air, believed to be the most polluted in the world. Despite this alarming fact, Delhi's loquacious politicians barely uttered a word on the subject in the recently concluded election campaign.

Now, the Aam Aadmi Party's (AAP) landslide victory gives it the perfect mandate to clean up Delhi's air. But, the labyrinth of issues related to Delhi's air pollution makes it a Herculean task.

In May 2014, a WHO study of data from 2008 to 2013 declared that out of 1600 cities in 91 countries, Delhi has the worst air quality in the world with the highest concentration (measured in micrograms per cubic metre of air or µg/m³) of PM2.5 and PM10 - suspended particulate matter (SPM) less than 2.5 microns and 10 microns in diameter respectively that can cause heart diseases, respiratory ailments and eventually, premature deaths. Delhi trumped its arch rival Beijing by a whopping margin with the annual mean concentrations of PM2.5 at 153 µg/m³ and PM10 at 286 µg/m³. These are 15 and 14 times the limits set by the WHO, which are 10 and 20 µg/m³ annually for PM2.5 and PM10 respectively India's pollution monitoring and norms maintenance body, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), has set annual mean PM2.5 and PM10 concentration limits at 40 and 60 µg/m³ respectively.

A 2013 study by Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) concluded that in the 18-45 age group, exposure to PM10 and especially PM2.5 above CPCB norms daily for around eight hours over 10 years can cause chronic bronchitis and heart diseases and even lung cancer.

But here's the worst. A 2014 study by IIT Roorkee in association with University of Minnesota and University of Colorado at Denver revealed that in 2000, 11,400 people died while 16,250 were hospitalised in Delhi due to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases directly linked to air pollution. By 2010, the figures had soared to 18,229 deaths and 26,525 hospital admissions.

So, why is Delhi's air quality worsening? The JNU study cited above concluded that automobiles are responsible for 63% of Delhi's air pollution, while two other studies (see here and here) state that automobiles contribute between 30% and 36% of PM2.5 emissions. The JNU study further says that industries contribute 29% to air pollution followed by domestic pollutants at 8%.

In 1999, CNG vehicles were introduced after a Supreme Court ruling which had some positive effects during the 2000s. But today, despite over 0.7 million CNG vehicles running on Delhi NCR's roads, all gains have been nullified by the soaring number of private vehicles. Over 8.1 million vehicles are currently registered in Delhi out of which 6 million are private, including 2.5 million four-wheelers.

The worst has been the explosion in diesel (which is a class 1 carcinogen) vehicles. Ever since petrol price deregulation in 2011, diesel vehicle sales have skyrocketed in cities like Delhi. Secondly, commercial vehicles, around 2.5 million of them, many of them not meant for Delhi pass through Delhi's borders every month including tens of thousands of trucks.

In November 2014, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered a ban on all Delhi vehicles older than 15 years - there are 2.9 million such vehicles. But the issue of how to compensate owners with no incentive in tax breaks if they sell them as scrap or buyback support etc has made this another headache.

In the case of vehicles from outside Delhi, the Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA), a body created by an order of the Supreme Court, stated that a 2001 Supreme Court ban on all interstate vehicles not meant for Delhi from passing through the city has not been implemented by the transport corporations, Delhi Police or the transport department.

While Delhi has some of the world's lowest parking charges, a convoluted tax structure wherein there are five to seven times higher road taxes on buses than cars, gives little incentive for governments or private operators to launch quality bus services within Delhi.

Apart from EPCA and civil society groups advocating solutions and policy recommendations, there's a famous PIL in Supreme Court to levy heavy taxes on diesel vehicles. Aware members of Delhi's civil society are seeking Bharat Stage IV and V norms (India's vehicular pollution norms on the line of Euro where pollution reduces with higher stage) from April 01, 2015 and 2017 instead of the planned 2017 and 2020 launch.

Coming to the second big contributor: industry. Delhi as well as the rest of the National Capital Region (NCR) requires a complex administrative and political balancing act. As per CPCB, in 2009, Ghaziabad was the third most critically polluted industrial area in India and remained one of the country's eight most critically polluted areas (CPAs) in 2014. But in July 2014, a September 2013 ban on industrial expansion and new industries in these eight CPAs was controversially lifted by the Modi government.

Similarly, a satellite-based study of the aerosols in Delhi-NCR's air by NASA and University of Miami concluded that the air quality has been worsening since 2002 in Noida, Gurgaon and Faridabad borders. This is because post a Supreme Court order in 2004, the relocation of close to 25,000 industries from Delhi to surrounding NCR cities saw a surge in air pollution in them.

How tough the challenge is for the inexperienced AAP government can be gauged from a few statements of the NDA government at the centre. Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar recently said that a clean environment must be the birth right of every citizen. But it was he who had given a written reply to the Lok Sabha in December 2014 stating that there was no plan to ban Delhi's diesel vehicles or convert them to CNG and that India's vehicles possess optimum standards in emissions and fuel efficiency. This despite the EPCA's recommendations to convert Delhi's diesel vehicles to CNG and frame tougher norms for future purchase or entry of diesel vehicles in Delhi.

Thus, the new AAP government has its work cut out for it. It will have to use every bit of diplomacy and statesmanship to work with the centre to cleanse Delhi's air. Otherwise, Delhi-NCR will soon be little better than a giant, poisonous gas chamber.