14/12/2015 8:39 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind: Why The NCR Is Delhi's Biggest Pollution Problem

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Smoke comes out of a public bus waiting at a traffic light in New Delhi, India, on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011. Morgan Stanley reduced its growth estimate for India to 7 percent from 7.2 percent earlier for the year ending March 31, according to an e-mailed statement today. Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Over the last few weeks, there has been a sudden outcry against the critical pollution levels in Delhi. The Delhi government has come up with multiple plans that may have far-ranging impact on the situation. The most controversial of these is the odd-even formula: citizens will be able to use their vehicles only on alternate days, depending on their number plates - cars with number plates ending with an odd number will be allowed to travel one day, and those with an even number the next.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and this time indeed is desperate for Delhi. However, the odd-even formula can at best be a short-term emergency measure. Until the city develops a comprehensive network of public transport -- and by comprehensive I mean safe and reliable last-mile transport -- a plan like this will fall in the first few weeks. Unsurprisingly, the move has triggered a raging debate, with many people opposing it on grounds such as safety for women and the elderly and the fact that people with multiple cars will be able to beat the system, thereby defeating the purpose.

To improve the air and water quality of Delhi, we will have to take the entire NCR under one umbrella.

I take exception to this plan because I feel that it tackles the issue only from the top. At the bottom of the problem lies the landlocked territory of Delhi surrounded by the most polluted areas of Faridabad and Gurgaon in Haryana, and Noida and Ghaziabad in UP. The last wave of clean-up in Delhi saw polluting industries being shunted out of Delhi into these suburbs that have now become independent industry clusters.

These cities are consistently ranked amongst the most polluted places in India (see here, here and here Since most of these places are beyond the control (and eyes) of the government in Delhi, the increased checks in the national capital will not amount to much if these cities are allowed to go unchecked.

Take Kaushambi as an example, the former residence of the current Delhi Chief Minister. It is separated from Delhi by half a road, but instead of CNG rickshaws in Delhi, Kaushambi makes do with old-style "Vikrams" that mostly run on a concoction of diesel and kerosene (because it's cheaper), ferrying people to the suburban areas of Vaishali, Vasundhara, Indrapuram and Mohan Nagar. Add to this, around 1,000 small-scale, poorly monitored industrial units in the area (including Sahibabad) plus the 20,000-odd trucks that pass by on NH-24 and SH-57 every night. This past April, the PM10 reading for Kaushambi was 342 µg/m3 whereas on the same day, the Mandir Marg reading was 132 µg/m3.

This is the story of a township that literally shares a boundary wall with Delhi. Go further deep into the suburbs of NCR, and the pollution levels, not just air, are extremely high. Add to this, the burning of crops in Punjab and Haryana and winter fog, there is little that any measure promulgated by the Delhi government can do.

To improve the air and water quality of Delhi, we will have to take the entire NCR under one umbrella. The National Green Tribunal, for example, would need to come up with strict laws regarding industrial emission and waste regarding use of diesel vehicles for private use as well as crop burning and disposal. Only when Delhi restrictions find their way to these bustling suburbs will we be able to comprehensively tackle the problem. Anything less will just be window dressing for the moment.

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