Delhi Can Learn From Other Megacities to Clear Its Toxic Smog
File picture of smog in Delhi. Image used for representational purpose. 
File picture of smog in Delhi. Image used for representational purpose. (Photo: Reuters)

Delhi Can Learn From Other Megacities to Clear Its Toxic Smog

Delhi must adopt anti-pollution steps taken by other megacities like Beijing and Mexico City if the metropolis is to get serious about tackling its annual smog crisis, experts say.

A toxic cloud covered New Delhi and its surrounding areas this month, causing respiratory problems among residents and leading to school closures, flight cancellations and the declaration of a public health emergency.

Similar to other megacities, poorer residents are often worst-hit by air pollution, as they are most likely to live along busy highways or near power plants.

They also tend to take jobs that are done outside, like street vending or labouring, providing little relief from the toxic fumes.

Also Read : Here’s a 3-Step Guide For Getting Through Delhi’s Smog Problem

Some Basic Causes

The causes of the problem include the poor quality of diesel used to generate electricity and to power the vehicles clogging the streets, dust and smoke thrown out by a thriving construction industry, and biomass and kerosene used by the poor for heating and cooking.

Stubble-burning on farmland around the city, described by local officials this month as a "gas chamber", is also cited by experts as a major cause.

"At the moment, Delhi is the most polluted city in the world in terms of air quality," says, Sarah Colenbrander, a researcher at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A traffic police on duty on a smog-filled morning.
A traffic police on duty on a smog-filled morning.
(Photo: The Quint/Natisha Mallick)

Also Read : Delhi’s Smog Has Caused an Unlikely Casualty: Diplomacy

Making a Start

Delhi residents breathe in three times as many fine particles that cause the greatest risk to health than the people of Beijing, another city notorious for high pollution levels that has begun to make strides in tackling its air problems.

The Chinese capital – which is home to about 22 million people compared to Delhi's 18 million – still suffers from chronic pollution and congestion.

But Beijing officials have created an air pollution action plan ushering in strict traffic curbs and regulations on the city's construction industry from November until March.

By limiting building work across and around Greater Beijing, dust levels have fallen. The structure of Beijing city, though much larger than Delhi, is similar. Beijing has very successfully tackled this issue, so it is doable for India as well. For every $1 spent on improving air quality in cities, $30 is returned to an economy.  Despite this, Indian authorities have failed to get the message across to the poor about the health risks and causes of air pollution.
Mukesh Khare, professor of environmental engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)

Delhi officials also took action to stop construction when pollution levels rose this month, but they acted after the smog arrived not before, as Beijing now does.

A man wearing an anti-pollution mask jogs through smog at Lodhi Garden in New Delhi on Tuesday, 7 November.
A man wearing an anti-pollution mask jogs through smog at Lodhi Garden in New Delhi on Tuesday, 7 November.
(Photo: PTI)

Also Read : We Must Remain Angry About Air Pollution: Sunita Narain

Stop the Gridlock

Lists of the world's most polluted cities are usually dominated by Indian and Chinese cities. But 25 years ago, Mexico City would always rank near the top.

Over the past decade, the high-altitude city – which still suffers from pollution and congestion – has tried different and unique ways to improve life for the 21 million people in its metropolitan region.

Efforts to boost mobility in Mexico City really took off after the rollout of a plan to connect the airport with the city centre – by expanding its bus rapid transit system. Fixing that problem showed people the relative ease and potential benefits of enlarging the city’s limited public transport network
Jemilah Magnusson, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, New York.
A smog-laden Delhi has worried many foreign diplomats.
A smog-laden Delhi has worried many foreign diplomats.
(Photo: PTI)

Mexico City has also created more bicycle lanes alongside a popular bike-sharing scheme.

And it has introduced groundbreaking parking reforms, including restricting the amount of parking buildings can provide, whereas before they were required to offer a minimum.

This measure aims to discourage the use of cars and free up more space for housing, making it cheaper.

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Things Will Get Worse, Before They Can Get Better

As Delhi's air quality deteriorated this month, authorities tried using fire trucks to spray water to keep dust and other air particles down, halting construction work and increasing car parking charges.

The effect was limited, but experts say there are other short-term measures that could be taken by Delhi officials to stop the smog in future.

In most Indian cities, the vast majority of residents do not drive cars, so improving the bus and pedestrian infrastructure would help, alongside implementing a bike-sharing scheme, introducing a permanent odd-even system, parking reforms and basic street redesign, experts said.

Also Read : Air Pollution: Tell Us Something We Don’t Already Know

Delhi would also benefit from large-scale investment in a mass transit system and the creation of an air pollution action plan using forecasts provided by the Indian meteorological department to prevent smog, experts said.

In the long term, a national environment agency should be established with the power to make quick decisions on pollution control and to punish states for inaction. If we don’t have a good action plan, things will get worse because Delhi is increasingly a growing city (and) our economy is getting better and better.
Mukesh Khare, professor of environmental engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)

Meanwhile, the central government should enforce existing anti-pollution regulations and standards, and push for a shift to more energy-efficient and cleaner vehicles, experts said.

(This article has been published in arrangement with Reuters)

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