Delhi Chokes: Sunita Narain Answers Your Air Pollution FAQs

What’s a solution to air pollution which works? Why is Delhi the worst affected by pollution? All your FAQs answered

4 min read

(This story was originally published on 4 June 2019 for World Environment Day and has been reworked from The Quint’s archives in the context of the air pollution crisis in Delhi in November 2019.)

Video Editor: Mohd Ibrahim

Air pollution. If you live in India, it’s an issue you know all too well. Every winter, air pollution levels in Delhi throw the city in a crisis. In cities apart from Delhi, air pollution is slowly making its presence felt. By all accounts, it looks like India is in the middle of an air pollution crisis. But what are the basic questions (and aspects) of air pollution in India?

The Quint sat down with Sunita Narain, Director General of Centre for Science and Environment, to discuss why analysis of air pollution in India is so Delhi-centric, how Karol Bagh market can offer a workable solution and why we don’t need Bollywood to sing jingles on the pollution crisis.


Is the talk of pollution in India too Delhi-centric?

Delhi is definitely a big problem as far as air pollution is concerned, for two reasons. One, because Delhi is located geographically where we have cold winds, where winters steps in. And because of winters, inversion takes place. There is no wind at that time, no dispersion of pollutants takes place and that is why in Delhi, winter is the worst as far as pollution is concerned. But that does not mean that there is no pollution in other parts of India, and that Delhi is not polluted in other seasons. The problem is that most of India does not have reliable monitoring of air pollution. I call that a conspiracy of silence. So, you don’t know how bad the pollution is because you are not monitoring it. That doesn’t mean pollution has gone away.

Wait, pollution exists in summers also?

See, pollution is a creature that is mutating. And in summer, ozone pollution is very high. And it is very high because you have the source of pollution, which is NOx, which comes out of diesel vehicles, which is there in winters, which leads to NOx pollution going up, which leads to particulates of NOx, and it leads to ozone during summer.

So, what’s a solution to air pollution which works?

My colleagues at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) actually did a study of the Karol Bagh market, and they actually found the reduction in pollution because of pedestrianisation in the market. It’s a no-brainer at one level, you remove the cars, you remove the congestion, you will get better air to breathe. There are two issues here. One, we need to scale up Karol Bagh. Now, to scale up Karol Bagh, we need to make sure that we have parking rules in place. The Delhi government came up with parking rules last year, and till now, those rules haven’t been notified. Why? Because the Delhi government wants to remove from the parking rules any restrictions or regulations on parking in residential areas. Now, it’s very clear that if you don’t regulate residential areas, there will be a spillover in commercial to residential. It won’t work. So, Karol Bagh has to be scaled up, must be scaled up, but for that you need a regulatory framework, so that you can actually start pricing cars when they are parked. And you can start providing disincentives for people for parking on public land without paying for it.

What does the government need to do? Better enforcement?

I believe we have to move towards enforcement. If you look at the air pollution policy today, everything is in place. There is a Delhi Clean Air Action Plan, there is a National Clean Air Action Plan, the Supreme Court of India has passed very important directives, whether it has been in terms of the quality of fuel that is used, whether it has been a ban on pet coke, whether it has been the issue of brick kilns that are operating without moving towards cleaner technology, so all the elements, all the policies are in place. Where the problem is enforcement, and that requires very effective deterrents. Because at the end of the day, what we have found is that courts are cracking down on polluters, but the process of actually holding anyone responsible and making sure that if you are polluting, you are caught and that it creates enough deterrents for others, just doesn’t exist.


Are people aware enough about air pollution in India?

The fact is that things have moved. For someone like me, who has been at it for so long, I agree that for a long time it was difficult to connect to anybody when it came to pollution issues. Today, I think everyone understands what pollution is doing, everybody understands the crisis of garbage, that we are destroying our rivers, the fact that we are destroying our land on which we survive. I think that recognition is across the country, and I don’t think it’s about rich or poor. It’s not about farmers or urban areas. Farmers understand climate change, more than I think all of us do, because they are seeing it play out in their lives. I think that whole phase is over. In fact, I would argue with you that we don’t need Bollywood to sing jingles to tell us that the environment is important. That’s what the Ministry of Environment has done yesterday and launched a film on Bollywood singing a jingle on air pollution. I think the time for Bollywood is over. We all understand the crisis, what we need to know from the government is, what are you doing about it?

What do we need to know this World Environment Day?

I want to say on this World Environment Day that when air pollution is a global concern, it is a national concern. Let’s be very clear that we need to act. It is a concern of public health, it is a concern that involves our bodies, our children’s health. But outrage is not enough, action is what we need.

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