The air pollution levels in India’s capital city New Delhi, reached record levels this month. Levels of particulate matter were reported to be fifteen times the “safe” limits on certain days with rapid sales of masks and air purifiers, leading to an acute shortage of these products in Delhi and surrounding areas. While Delhi remains the predominant focus of media attention year after year, air pollution is a challenge endemic to many other cities in the country as well. As highlighted by the World Health Organization’s Urban Air Quality 2016 Database cities such as Ahmedabad, Allahabad, Gwalior, and Patna, are among many others that also face alarming levels of pollution.
For Delhi, a number of reasons caused this spike in air pollution in the first two weeks of November. Burning of Diwali firecrackers and stubble in paddy fields of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh around this time of the year, added to Delhi’s persistent air pollution woes including emissions from vehicles and fossil fuel burning as well as dust from construction activities and movement of vehicles. Burning garbage, which can contain plastic, rubber and metallic items and gives off toxic emissions, also adds to the city’s acrid air.
During the air pollution crisis in the last two weeks, in particular, the Delhi government announced a suite of emergency measures to bring the severely dangerous levels of particulate matter in the air down. Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal ordered for all schools to be closed, construction and demolition work to shut down for five days, a ban on use of diesel generators for ten days, a ban on transportation of fly ash, and other measures including sprinkling and vacuuming of roads in an effort to manage the severity of the situation.
While such measures, including Delhi’s odd-even scheme, are a useful start to bring drastically bad levels of air pollution down in the short term, they serve as a temporary fix or a “band-aid” in the solutions to manage the air pollution problem overall. It is time to rip the band-aid and accept that India’s cities will need a much stronger and structured strategy to address their air pollution challenges as India becomes the fastest growing developing economy and energy demand in the country increases. Much remains to be done to mitigate the severe air pollution across India’s cities and the time for temporary fixes is gone.
Last week in Delhi, a group of expert scientists lead by the Chest Research Foundation, discussed and highlighted the need for building the local evidence base on air pollution and health in India as the first step to reaching some of the air pollution solutions rooted in stronger policies.
Next month, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation prepares to launch its air quality index (AQI) in partnership with the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology’s System for Air Quality Monitoring and Forecasting Research (SAFAR) project that has launched the AQI in Delhi, Pune and Mumbai already. Together with health scientists and policy experts from NRDC and partners, the Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar, the AMC is convening a discussion to highlight experiences from cities across India including Delhi and Ahmedabad in a step towards building strong health risk communication systems in the city and protecting millions who live and work there everyday.