Delhi battles for clean air

By Debapriya Sen Vaite

New Delhi, Oct. 31, 2018: The winter is settling down in Delhi. As the air is becoming smoky and unhealthy, proportionately, there is steady increase in the number of school children wearing masks while waiting for their school bus during early mornings. Parks will soon be less populated as people will avoid any outdoor exercise and children will stop playing outdoors as for next few months advised by Central Board of Pollution Control.

This is not a distant or overrated or abstract hazard, it is a reality with tangible consequences. India is home to 14 of world’s 20 most polluted cities, with Delhi disreputably up in the chart. We are absorbing the toxic air and keep the toxins within ourselves for a life time.

The blame is consistently pinned on the farmers of the neighboring states for crop residue burning. While it does have a considerable impact on the Delhi air standards, it is not the only and definitely not the most critical source of pollution as projected in the media over the last few winters.

We cannot turn blind eye to the existence of sources like vehicular emission (20 percent of PM2.5), industrial emission, road and construction dust (38 percent), fly ash emission from restaurants, domestic cooking, power plants in the vicinity and burning of Municipal Solid Waste (18 percent) which are within the city and contribute heavily to the air pollution throughout the year .

The Delhi air has already crossed the WHO air quality standards by many folds as average air quality has reached 349 which falls under ‘very poor category.’ Sooner we accept the reality and the crisis we are in, the better chance we have to salvage the situation.

A strong political will is the most important factor to achieve any success in this matter. Identification of control options for each source of emission; tools for accessing health impact of air pollution; scale of Municipal waste and vehicular pollution, focused communication campaign; supporting cleaner air initiatives; energy-efficient housing; municipal waste management and fine on burning of MSW as imposed by National Green Tribunal can reduce key sources of outdoor air pollution.

For the external source of emission: No burn solutions need to be envisaged. Cohesive partnership among the governments of federal, Delhi and neighboring states is needed to deal with this issue.

The federal and state governments have taken up a range of measures to improve air quality. The draft National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) was released by the Ministry of Environment early this year.

Directions are issued by the Delhi government to stakeholder departments and agencies to stop all civil engineering constructions in Delhi. Municipal corporations and DDA (Delhi Development Authority) were directed to strictly enforce prohibition of open burning of garbage, plastics and leaves. The Public Works Department is asked to impose fine on the road construction agencies where dust control measures are inadequate.

Recently the Dust control and Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) for effectively checking air pollution in Delhi was reviewed.

The challenge, also the key part of the solution is twofold:
• The implementation plans often not based on targeted needs assessment findings and time bound.
• Social and institutional feasibility to take up the directives

While instituting clear policies and their implementation on ground are essential, behavioral and lifestyle changes are crucial if we want a long-term sustainable solution to our fight for clean air. Ultimately, we need to realize this is our battle to control the permanent damage chronic and acute exposure to toxic air does to us.

What bothers is that, this year too there will be hue and cry for the next three months, on primetime media, at offices, over cups of tea/coffee. Everyone will talk about air pollution, crop residue burning, city’s waste management; some sporadic steps will be taken by the concerned authorities for optics purpose.

What happens once the winter is over? Does the burning of solid waste stops? Dust control violations don’t take place post winter? Does unauthorized parking on road side stop? What stops is the coverage of this issue, compliance of the directives. And we continue to breath in the poison.


We are already in a state of medical emergency, we do not have another half a decade to sit and discuss the action plans. The government, NGOs and citizens need to join hands in support of accelerated concrete action and compliance on ground though out the year if we want to improve the air quality.

Failing to act now will have tremendous economic and human impact.

(Debapriya Sen Vaite is a social development professional with over 12 years of experience in technical and operational management of projects with various Indian and International organizations largely on HIV/AIDS, Migration and social protection. She currently focuses on environmental health issues.)

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