Delhi Air Pollution: Will a ‘Wicked’ Solution Help Clear the Smog?
Image used for representational purposes.
Image used for representational purposes.(Photo: The Quint)

Delhi Air Pollution: Will a ‘Wicked’ Solution Help Clear the Smog?

As masks, air purifiers and the AQI have become the new normal for life in the city, is there no end in sight out of this grey smog? Every year politicians and policy-makers indulge in a blame game, even as the courts rap them on their knuckles for inaction, leaving the citizens gasping for breathe.

Yet solutions do exist; air pollution typically is a ‘wicked’ problem that needs a ‘wicked’ solution. A ‘wicked’ problem is one that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise. It refers to an idea or problem that cannot be fixed, where there is no single solution to the problem.

A ‘Wicked’ Problem Needs a ‘Wicked’ Solution

Delhi’s deteriorating air quality is quite typically a ‘wicked’ problem with multiple agencies responsible for it, a plethora of causes of emissions that differ according to the weather, and a number of enforcement agencies that don’t have the requisite capacities to implement the law.

Joshua Apte, an environmentalist and academic conducted a study which found that the average pollution levels were up to eight times higher on city roads

Three scientists who have worked on the ‘wicked’ problem of air pollution in different capacities admit that the issue can be resolved, but it requires a complete overhaul in our approach to the issue. I asked each of these scientists to imagine that they were stuck in an elevator with the Environment Minister of India. What are the main tangible, multi-sectoral solutions they would suggest that could cause a significant shift in air quality?

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“Policy Framework For Tackling Air Pollution is Completely Broken”

Joshua Apte, an Assistant Professor, University of Texas at Austin, has been studying human exposure to air pollution and its impact on health. In 2015 he measured air quality from the back of a rickshaw on his laptop in the capital.

Roaming the streets in an autorickshaw fitted with air pollution monitors, his study found that the average pollution levels were up to eight times higher on city roads. His study showed that the exposures that one experiences on and near roads can substantially exceed what one would measure at an official monitoring site.

Pallavi Pant, a Boston-based scientist says, “We know air pollution can’t be solved today or tomorrow. But it will matter how the government acts, and what it prioritises.”

In the search for solutions, Apte states that we must acknowledge that “the policy framework for tackling air pollution in India is completely broken”. That’s why he suggests a comprehensive rethink of environmental legislation. He advocates a policy framework that would include:

  • laws that recognise the multi-sectoral nature of air pollution — therefore mandating that nearly every sector make major contributions to reducing emissions

  • laws that recognise the regional nature of the problem — states have to work together and should have the ability to hold each other accountable

  • stringent timetables with appropriate levels of funding for pollution control on all the major source categories — and appropriate levels of investment in monitoring and enforcement with real teeth.

Apte admits there are some good ideas out there for other near-term and mid-term solutions that can reduce individual sources a bit. And those deserve attention too. But a serious public conversation started about what a comprehensive approach to pollution control might look like, how it might get paid for, and how a political consensus might be built could put us on the path to better air quality.

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Air Pollution Solution: “Don’t Run After Quick Fixes”

Pallavi Pant is a scientist at Health Effects Institute, based in Boston, MA. She holds a PhD in Environmental Health; her research has focused on characterisation and assessment of urban air pollution, particularly in India.

According to Pant, there is now enough data in place to know what the major pollution sources are. Like Apte, she too admits that sources contribute differently at the national, regional and local scales, and an effective policy would introduce sectoral interventions at the appropriate scale.

In the search for solutions, Joshua Apte states that we must acknowledge that the “the policy framework for tackling air pollution in India is completely broken”.

The introduction of the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) for city-level action is a step in the right direction, but “can there be a complementary programme (or perhaps modifications to NCAP) that brings cities and states together and tackles sources in an integrated manner,” she asks.

A second intervention Pant advocates is the need to invest in development of local capacity. For this she suggests expanding budgetary support for pollution control boards along with investing in the development of local expertise on all aspects of air pollution — monitoring, modeling and forecasting, estimation of impacts.

Sarath Guttikunda. founder of ‘Urban Emissions’, suggests that dust management on roads and better enforcement of emission standards for industries could substantially help.

Pant adds, “We know air pollution can't be solved today or tomorrow. It will take time, but it will matter how the government acts, and what it prioritises. Don't run after quick fixes. Think about policies, which, when implemented well, will yield year-on-year benefits and improve the quality of air for Delhi's citizens.”

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Air Pollution: Narrative Must Move to a Solutions-Based Discourse

Sarath Guttikunda is the founder of Urban Emissions, a platform for information, research, and analysis related to air pollution. He was part of the team which built India's first air quality forecasting system. Sarath has written extensively on finding the right solutions to air pollution, urging the need for better monitoring systems to measure air quality.

He suggests a three-pronged approach: investing in better systems of city design to ensure that there is an active shift to public transport, setting aside space on the roads for cycling and walking, and a complete elimination of open-waste burning.

Delhi’s deteriorating air quality is quite typically a ‘wicked’ problem with multiple agencies responsible for it.

Guttikunda also suggests dust management on roads and better enforcement of emission standards for industries could substantially help. Remember, the national capital region is surrounded by hundreds of medium as well as small-scale industries, and the pollution control boards of different states in the NCR have limited capacities to punish the polluters.

For too long, the media and activists have been preoccupied with the numbers related to air quality. The narrative has to move to a solutions-based discourse, and how the path to clean air has to be achieved. Only then will there be a way out of this ‘wicked’ problem.

(Bahar Dutt is an award winning environment journalist and author of the book Rewilding India: Experiments in Saving Nature. She tweets at @bahardutt. This is an opinion piece. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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