It’s 2020; Delhi Air Is Still Terrible – And The Onus Is On Us

We continue to blame the government, but what we really must do is look at ourselves and our lifestyles. 

Updated
Opinion
7 min read
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As the winters start to creep in on North India, the waning mercury ensures a direct surge in a deadly mix of smoke and fog, commonly known as ‘smog’, especially in metropolises like Delhi. With it rises the frequency of political blame-game, and complaints by citizens and leaders alike, over whom they can blame this health hazard on, since ‘taking responsibility’ is not a virtue we have excelled in.

Delhi Suffering Today What England Suffered in 1905

Delhi today, suffers from – to some extent – what is called Sulfurous Smog – a result of high concentration of Sulfurous Oxides mixed with fog due to the burning of fossil fuels. This is what England in 1905 suffered mainly from. Delhi also suffers from another type, ie, Photochemical Smog – which is usually not spoken about – and is an equally potent twin culprit. This is the ‘Urban Smog’ that is particular to urban cities that have lots of automobiles.

It requires neither smoke or fog, thus, explaining the permanent bad air quality in Delhi. It is caused due to nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbon vapours emitted by automobiles and other sources, which then undergo photochemical reactions in the lower atmosphere.

The highly toxic gas, ozone, arises from the reaction of nitrogen oxides with hydrocarbon vapours in the presence of sunlight, and some nitrogen dioxide is produced from the reaction of nitrogen oxide with sunlight.

The resulting smog causes a light brownish coloration of the atmosphere, reduced visibility, plant damage, irritation of the eyes, and respiratory distress.

What Mostly Contributes to Delhi’s Bad Air Quality?

One of the biggest myths about Delhi pollution is that it is mainly caused by ‘Stubble Burning’ by farmers of neighbouring states – ie, Punjab and Haryana. In Delhi, the PM10 (Particulate Matter – PM10 describes particles that can be inhaled, with diameters that are generally 10 micrometers and smaller) and PM25 levels are 4-5 times higher than the national average, according to a detailed study carried out by IIT-Kanpur, and submitted to the Delhi Pollution Control Committee and Department of Environment way back in 2016.

According to the report, the biggest contributors to Delhi’s toxic and polluted air – with an AQI that goes up to 500 (Hazardous) – for PM10 are:

  • Road dust – 56 percent
  • Concrete-batching – 10 percent
  • Industrial point sources – 10 percent
  • Vehicles – 9 percent

For PM25, the main contributors are:

  • Road dust – 38 percent
  • Vehicles – 20 percent
  • Domestic fuel-burning – 12 percent
  • Industrial point sources – 11 percent

NOx (Nitrous Oxides) emissions come majorly from:

  • Industrial sources – 52 percent
  • Vehicles – 36 percent
  • DG sets – 6 percent
  • Aircraft activity – 2 percent

Industries alone further add to almost 90 percent of Sulphur Dioxide to Delhi’s pollution. And Carbon Monoxide is contributed at the rate of almost 83 percent just by the vehicles.

We Are in 2020 – Delhi’s Air Quality Is Still Bad. Why No Action Against ‘Real Defaulters’?

MSW (Municipal Solid Waste) burning contributes 8-12 percent in both winters and summers for PM10 as well as PM25. The IIT-Kanpur research further states that – coal and fly-ash and road and soil dust in summer contribute 26-37 percent to PM2.5 and PM10.

It is observed that in summer, the atmosphere looks whitish to greyish, indicating the presence of large amounts of fly-ash and dust; re-suspension of dust appears to be a chief contributor to these sources. It is only in winters that MSW burning and CRB (Crop Residual Burning) can reach upto 17 percent of PM10 and 26 percent of PM25.

The impact is not same in summers.

The report goes on to suggest very actionable and immediate measures that need to be taken to improve Delhi’s air quality. However, here we are, in 2020, and nothing has changed.

The Delhi government continues to blame crop-burning as the single-point source of Delhi’s misery, and on the other hand, everyone who can afford to, is continuing to buy air purifies for their homes and offices.

The common man continues to trudge helplessly through the smoke, pollutants and hope, that maybe the government will do something this time. But we all know that while it’s exceedingly difficult to take stringent actions against the actual defaulters, it is very easy to put the blame on someone else.

To Curb Pollution, We Must Change Our Lifestyles

Also, we continue to blame the government, but what we really must do is look at ourselves and our lifestyles. Right now, as we breathe, exist, read this article on a phone/laptop, drive our SUVs and live on electrically heated/cooled houses, we are contributing to polluting the environment.

The mere existence of human and animal life is ‘pollution’ to the environment because we breathe out CO2. Too much CO2, and the planet goes kaput. Cows, if they formed a country, would be third largest producer of greenhouse gas emitters, because of the methane they expel from their bodies.

At 18 percent, they are a larger producer of methane than all forms of transport put together.

A single Tweet adds 0.02 grams of CO2 in the environment because it takes around 100 joules – a Google query emits around 0.2 grams – and more reason to hate spam emails because they emit around 0.3 grams! A website emits around 2000 Kg of CO2 annually which is as good as burning 990 kgs of coal.

Solutions for cities like Delhi lies majorly in its transport sector and household management of energy usage. About time electric vehicles become a bigger trend and find wider acceptability. The onus is not on private industries to talk and advertise its features; it is actually upon the government to support the push.

Having seminars and events is not the answer; subsidies and free charging stations are. CNG was a good step because CNG emits 20-30 percent less greenhouse gases and 95 percent lesser tailpipe emissions as compared to petroleum products. But we failed to manifest this.

How Govt Can Push for Use of Electric Vehicles

Ask any CNG user and his biggest woe is long lines at limited gas stations. If EVs go the same way, then it will again end up being a token representation in overall traffic in the city. The cities need to build maximum, approachable and cheaper charging stations if we want electric vehicles to gain popularity. And this charging has to be majorly subsidised.

The government can definitely explore the cross subsidy factor for someone using EV instead of Petrol/Diesel-based vehicle. Create easier financing schemes that are handled by the companies and not individuals, to save him from the vagaries of bureaucracy. Introduce buy-back schemes like giving an old car for a cheaper EV.

As far as household energy consumption is concerned, the Rooftop Solar project failed to take off due to many reasons. People living in high-rise societies have common roofs for as much as a few hundred flats. There is no space on the roof to install anything meaningful.

People living in independent houses can’t seem to be bothered about electricity bills. In the middle bracket, those who might want to take the call, do not have enough disposable income at one time to invest a couple of lakhs in a solar setup that can make a meaningful difference in their electricity bill.

What About Solar Energy? Have We Really Tapped into Its Potential?

Have you ever tried to work with the Electricity Board and State Nodal agency to try and get a subsidy for a rooftop solar project? Don’t! The bureaucracy and follow-ups itself will burn more calories in you than you would’ve wanted to, to save fossil fuels. And there is still no guarantee that you will get it. It’s a Catch-22 situation.

Those who don’t need subsidies wont use solar because of the lifestyle and aesthetics of their homes and households. And those who want to do not get enough support financially to make it happen.

While the government has done fantastically well as far as overall solar installations are concerned, and has become one of the global leaders, that is as far as the Grid-connected MW Scale solar parks and farms are concerned. The state of solar rooftop segment remains woefully unexplored and underutilised. The solar products market also remains highly underdeveloped.

By now, everyone should have had a solar charger for charging their phones and laptops. There is hardly a product in the market worth considering. Innovative solutions around solar energy find a very uphill task when dealing with bureaucracy or private funding.

The government wants to see a successful pilot, and private equity wants to see profits. Being the capital intensive industry that it is, it becomes nearly impossible for innovators to create solutions, even if they have brilliant ideas.

If we need to bring innovation into the energy sector, risks of investing into ideas have to be taken. A lot will fail, but the ones that succeed have the ability to change the way we consume electricity forever.

‘Can’t Wish Pollution Only Upon Neighbours’ – Why Onus Is Also on Us

The government cannot continue thinking in zero-error-syndrome terms and hope to bring in innovators who work on experimenting models. That’s the reason any new technology, especially energy-related, is always imported, and the best we can do is assemble parts and give it an Indian name.

Carbon emissions are a major threat today. It is not going to cut itself, unless we take strong measures, which means technological, lifestyle and social changes.

Only a mix of all this has the ability to foster change. We may have the solution – but if it is not affordable for the common man, it’s useless. The same way affordability without solution is a dud point. But we cannot escape making a carbon footprint. It will be unwise and counterproductive if we were to give up all the comforts and luxuries in life just so to breathe clean air.

The magic word is – balance. We have to make the change ourselves.

Measures like carpooling, switching off unnecessary electrical equipment, using LPG rather than the microwave to make your coffee, keeping more plants around, using solar chargers etc are small steps we all can take and make the change.

The air quality is not going to change overnight. It will take many years to bring a positive improvement. But everyone needs to take a step towards it because pollution is something you cannot wish only on your neighbours. 2.2 million children in Delhi suffer from irreversible lung damage due to poor air quality. I think this should be enough for you to get up and check if the lights in your bathroom are switched off.

(Maj Manik M Jolly, SM, is a decorated Mil Int veteran who now works in the rural development sector. He tweets @Manik_M_Jolly. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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