Air Emergency in Delhi: A Health Crisis Hits Home

Co-authored by Polash Mukerjee of the NRDC India Team

Indian cities, especially in the Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR) and other major northern cities, are in the middle of an air pollution emergency, with several air quality monitoring stations in the Delhi region registering readings above the severe 500 mark for deadly fine particles and many more stations showing severe health risks on the Air Quality Index. Air pollution is taking a heavy toll on the health of Indians. A 2018 Lancet Commission study found that outdoor (ambient) air pollution causes a staggering 670,000 deaths each year in India.

Extremely high levels of dangerous air pollution have become the norm around this time of the year across northern India. With worsening air quality, authorities are enacting short term measures to ensure air quality doesn’t persist at emergency levels. To reduce air pollution over the long term, the national government has launched a National Clean Air Program, which aims to reduce particulate matter (PM) levels by 30 percent in five years.

The State of Air Quality in Delhi

In 2019, Delhi has had a relatively good summer in terms of its Air Quality. Between July 15 and October 1, the city’s Air Quality remained in the “Satisfactory” category, with some “Good” days as well. According to government data, the Annual Air Pollution levels in Delhi fell by 25% between 2014 and 2018. These recent images of the Delhi sky demonstrate how much variability (the AQI in Delhi was 93 on October 1st, 207 on October 22 and 494 on November 3) there can be in outdoor air quality, even within a ten-day period:

Sunset in Delhi, October 22, 2019 (left) and October 31, 2019 (right) (Credit: NRDC)

Despite some days with cleaner air, the Delhi region increasingly struggles with air pollution in the late fall and early winter. This problem is linked to a combination of factors, as weather conditions and intermittent sources of pollution add to ongoing emissions from sources like vehicles, power plants, construction dust, and waste burning.

Weather conditions play an important role. Delhi and much of northern India typically experience a wintertime inversion layer of cool air that traps pollution near ground-level, much like Los Angeles’ summer inversion layer. From mid-September onwards, Delhi experiences a drop in temperatures and wind speeds, favoring the accumulation of air pollutants and increasing outdoor pollutant levels.

During the late autumn and winter, human activities worsen air quality problems. In particular, Delhi’s recurring air quality woes partly stem from the long-range transport of smoke from crop stubble burning by farmers in neighboring states. Soon after the harvesting of the monsoon crop, an estimated 20 million tonnes of paddy stubble is burned in the northern states of Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh.

Diwali and Beyond: Delhi’s Air Pollution Crisis Escalates

By October 29, the day after Diwali, the air quality in the Delhi area worsened from the “Very Poor” Category to the “Severe” Category of Air Quality.

Within a period of 48 hours of Diwali, the contribution of such crop residue burning increased dramatically.  According to the SAFAR program of the Ministry of Earth Science’s Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology-Pune, the contribution of crop residue burning increased from 4% on October 25 to an estimated 44% on October 31 (see figure below). The total fine particle pollution concentrations in the Delhi-NCR region spiked sharply, with PM2.5 average concentrations nearly reaching 400 µg/m3 by November 1, worsening further into the “Severe Plus” category of Air Quality.

Estimated and forecast contribution (by percent) of crop residue burning in Delhi’s total PM2.5 load (Credit: System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research)

What Actions Are Being Taken?

The Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority for Delhi & NCR (National Capital Region), or the EPCA, is a Supreme Court Appointed Committee that has been overseeing all air pollution related regulations in the region since 1998. In 2016, the EPCA, along with the central as well as state governments began implementation of the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP). In 2019 to date, the GRAP has enabled expanded air pollution management:

  • For the first time ever, the Delhi government issued a health advisory to protect its people from exposure to health-harming levels of air pollution.
  • 19 “pollution hotspots” have been identified, which will be prioritised for increased vigilance and enforcement throughout the winter.
  • The use of diesel generator sets has been suspended in Delhi as well as Faridabad, Gurugram, Ghaziabad, Noida, Greater Noida, Sonepat, Panipat, and Bahadurgarh, except for essential and emergency services.
  • Use of all fireworks has been banned for the entire winter period.
  • The operation of all brick kilns across NCR that do not use cleaner technology has been suspended till March 2020.
  • For the second year in a row, the operations of all fuel-based industries that do not use exclusively Natural Gas or Agro-residues as fuel have been suspended until November 5. This intervention is effect in Delhi, Faridabad, Gurugram, Ghaziabad, Noida, Greater Noida, Sonepat, Panipat, Bahadurgarh and Bhiwadi.
  • Construction activities have been suspended in Delhi, Faridabad, Gurugram, Ghaziabad, Noida and Greater Noida until November 5.
  • All hot-mix asphalt mixing plants and stone crushers in the NCR have been mandated to suspend operations until November 5.
  • Intensive water sprinkling operations and mechanical road sweeping to better control windblown dust.

In addition to the actions under GRAP, the various governments in the region have announced the following measures:

  • Road rationing measures for personal cars – the odd-even rule will kick in on November 4-15. Under the scheme, private cars with odd-numbered registration plates will be allowed to run on odd dates and those with even-numbered plates will run on even dates from 8am to 8pm, barring Sundays. The government will deploy additional buses, metro coaches as well as have a temporary moratorium on surge pricing on app-based taxis, such as Uber & Ola.
  • All government and private schools up to Class 12 in NCR will remain closed until November 5 in the wake of spike in pollution levels. The Delhi government has also announced that it will distribute five million N95 anti-pollution masks to students in government and private schools
  • A high-level meeting on the alarming situation in Delhi-NCR was chaired by PK Mishra, the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, on the evening of November 3. It was decided that Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba would monitor the alarming pollution situation in Delhi and neighboring states on a daily basis. The chief secretaries of these states have been asked to monitor the situation in various districts of their respective states round-the-clock.

While Delhi’s air pollution problems receive a large share of media attention, many Indian cities are experience degraded air quality. These cities are increasingly at the forefront of action to address the problem and protect public health. Achieving lasting improvements in air quality will require a coordinated countrywide effort. Collaboration and coordination across government levels is crucial. Implementation of judicial orders, and air pollution management plans developed by empowered committees will also be key. In order to meet this serious challenge, air quality improvement must remain a sustained priority for Indian policymakers, business leaders, and a concerned public.

About the Authors

Anjali Jaiswal

Senior Director, India, International Program

Kim Knowlton

Senior Scientist and Deputy Director, Science Center

Vijay Limaye

Science Fellow, Science Center

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.