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Home / World / Air pollution in Delhi: The law that helps to promote the poor air quality of the city

Air pollution in Delhi: The law that helps to promote the poor air quality of the city

More than 20 million people in the Delhi metropolitan area are once again confronted with one of the worst pollution in the world. The air quality is deteriorating this week to a dangerous level as weather conditions, urban emissions and rural smoke converge over the Indian capital region.

Delhi's chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, turned to Twitter to call his city a "gas chamber."

The gray haze caused flights to be canceled, schools closed, and a public health emergency triggered. The government distributed 5 million face masks to schoolchildren.

On Monday, some air quality index monitors reached a maximum of 999 and air pollution reached 50 times the level deemed safe by the World Health Organization. For the Delhiites, breathing was like smoking fifty cigarettes in one day. The US embassy in New Delhi maintains its own air quality monitor and reported Thursday that the air quality index has improved to 255, which is "very unhealthy".

  A map of PM2.5 air pollution over India.

Delhi air pollution remains "unhealthy" this week.
Berkeley Earth

This increase in air pollution in Delhi is alarmingly frequent and part of a dangerous pollution problem in India. The World Health Organization reported last year that 11 out of 12 cities in the world were the most polluted by PM2.5 particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter that can cause dangerous heart conditions and respiratory problems in India. The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health found that in 2015 there were 9 million premature deaths from air pollution worldwide. India suffered the highest toll of all countries, with more than 2.5 million deaths. According to an estimate, the life expectancy of 660 million people in the country has decreased by 3.2 years.

While the very young, elderly and sick are the most vulnerable, anyone can suffer when the pollution is high enough. The effects can last for years, even during prenatal exposure. With a growing population throughout the country and more people moving into densely populated cities, the risk to Indians is increasing.

Dirty air is a consequence of both natural and human factors, and many emerging economies around the world face similar problems as societies urbanize and shift from agriculture to industry. However, air pollution is a problem with political roots, and in Delhi much of the pollution can be attributed to divergent policy choices, including the unintended consequences of a water protection law. The solution is not just technology, but better governance.

Why Delhi's air pollution is so bad at this time of year

Joshua Apte, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, explained that air quality is a function of pollution and dilution: how much is emitted and how much? it is spreading a lot. And right now Delhi has many of the former and not many of the latter.

In November the air over Delhi becomes cool, dry and calm. As a result, much of the air above the city remains trapped and spread is limited. The area is also inland and the surrounding topology can act as a basin.

Then there are the pollution sources. Among the largest emitters are Delhi with more than 10 million vehicles such as cars and trucks. Many of these vehicles are powered by two-stroke engines that cause more air pollution than four-stroke engines. Depending on the season, vehicles can contribute 40 to 80 percent of the total pollution in the region. Dust from the city's construction boom also adds to the city's smog. Another factor is brick kilns that burn solid fuels. This also applies to coal-fired power generation.

These sources contribute to year-round pollution in Delhi. But there are several additional factors that make air quality even worse.

As temperatures drop, some of the city's poorer residents burn fires for cooking and heating, sending dust and ashes to the urban environment.

Some of the worst soils this year also occurred at the Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, which was celebrated with the lighting of lamps and often with the firing of fireworks. The celebration, which usually lasts five days, began on October 27th this year.

One of the biggest causes of pollution in Delhi is currently not from the city. Farmers outside the city burn the stubble left over from the harvest at this time of year to clear their fields and restore nutrients to the soil for the next planting. The smoke of these fires has blown over the city in recent days.

Taken together, it has become a recipe for stifling, dirty air for millions of residents. "It's like pouring a lot of stuff into a sink that's clogged," Apte said. "It flows over with spectacular consequences."

Delhi was not always that bad. A law protecting water contributed to the increase in environmental pollution.

"I was born and raised in Delhi and have never experienced this pollution," said Aseem Prakash, founding director of the Environmental Policy Department at the University of Washington. "Pollution [severe] really started in 2010. The question is what happened in 2009. "

Prakash stated that the province of Punjab is India's breadbasket to the west and against the wind of Delhi, and that the agricultural techniques in recent years in this region were improving helped provide a food surplus to the country to deliver.

  A firelight to clear grain stubble causes smoke on a farm near Masuri on November 4, 2019 in Ghaziabad, India.

The burning of cereal stubble outside of Delhi causes smoke to enter the city and affect air quality.
Sakib Ali / Hindustan Times / Getty Images

These intensive farming techniques, however, began to fuel a water shortage as farmers used cheap electricity extracted from groundwater reserves. To counteract this, the Punjab government enacted the Punjab Underground Water Conservation Act in 2009.

One of the most important provisions of this law changed the way farmers cultivate rice. Rice production usually takes place in two steps, with the harvest being first cultivated in a nursery before being transplanted to a paddy field. The Water Act prohibited sowing in kindergarten before 10 May and transplanting before 10 June. The delay allowed for seasonal monsoon rains and replenished aquifers.

According to most reports, the law worked. It slowed the decline of the Punjab groundwater table. To delay the planting, however, means to delay the harvest. Because of the rice harvest at the end of October, farmers have barely one month left to clear their fields for winter wheat, which is usually sown in mid-November.

These farms are often run by smallholders who can not hire large numbers of workers or afford the machines needed to quickly clear their fields from the remnants of the last harvest. So they turned to the cheapest and fastest method to prepare for the next plantation – burning stubble.

  Satellite image of fires burning in India.

This satellite image of NASA's World Model Satellite shows fires discovered near Delhi on November 3, 2019 (red).
NASA Worldview

Of course, it's not just so rural pollution that stifles Delhi. Urban pollution sources – traffic, construction, cooking fires – have also increased as the population of the region has increased by more than 7 million people in the last decade, leading to an uncontrolled spread.

Taken together, these factors have led to a sudden, devastating decline in air quality in Delhi in recent years.

Delhi officials respond to air pollution, but are reluctant to take aggressive action.

This year, officials In Delhi, fireworks were banned from Diwali, 210 people were arrested and 3.7 tons of illegal arsonists confiscated. Pops and explosions shook the city throughout the festival.

Brick ovens and factories were shut down this week. Delhi officials also introduced an odd traffic rationing scheme that deprives about half of the cars off the road on a given day based on their license plates. About 200 traffic police teams were deployed to enforce the rules. However, the regulation barely reduced the amount of pollution.

Also, the Supreme Court of India on Monday issued a preliminary injunction against the burning of crops. However, the fires have continued, showing that enforcement is a problem and that farmers are still in the early stages of the harvest stoppage season.

Taken together, these measures have hardly moved the needle. While air quality in Delhi has improved somewhat in recent days, analysts say that this is due to weather shifts – not to policy measures.

"This is mainly due to the change in wind direction from northwest to southeast, which has slightly improved the air in Delhi," said Kurinji Selvaraj, research analyst at the Delhi-based Council on Energy, Environment and Water The think tank shared CBS news with.

  On November 7, 2019, students in New Delhi, India, covered their faces with protective masks in light rain.

Delhi officials distributed more than 5 million air filter masks to students indicating an increase in air pollution.
Sonu Mehta / Hindustan Times / Getty Images

In order to reduce pollution significantly, all sources need to be tackled simultaneously, which has turned out to be an enormous hurdle. "Part of the challenge is that it gives the character" Oh no, you first, "" No, you first, "Apte said. "None of the sectors would like to register for regulations that lead to drastic emission reductions when other sectors do not necessarily carry the same debt."

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that every source of pollution is also a political constituency: Farmers, landowners, property developers, construction companies, energy companies. In a democracy like India, they all sit at the loud, loud table. There are also social upheavals in the midst of environmental pollution – many of the peasants in Punjab belong to the religious minority of the Sikh, and politicians fear that pressure could reopen old sectarian wounds.

Despite the growing alarm, air pollution has barely occurred in India's last election cycle. And while Indian officials and courts issue edicts to stop sources of pollution, they are reluctant to impose bans on burning, driving, fireworks and industrial activities.

"People will be in turmoil, they will stop trains, there will be riots, and nobody wants to get into this dispute," Prakash said. "It's really a very, very loud and well-functioning democracy, and there are too many veto points."

Air pollution can be solved. Some cities have made great progress.

Many cities around the world are struggling with air pollution. It is well known that London has been fighting dirty air since the 14th century and still suffers air quality problems today. Also in the past and more recently Paris was hit by dangerous smog.

In the US, air quality alerts are regularly issued in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles County when forest fires occur around them. And the country as a whole has seen an increase in air pollution deaths, partly due to the weaker enforcement of environmental legislation.

However, the air quality problems in these cities are often transient and many have made important progress in continuously improving air quality by enforcing environmental legislation and using cleaner technologies. The persistently polluted air over Delhi is a consequence of its current economic development, similar to other megacities in developing countries.

This is the idea behind the Environmental Kuznets Curve. The hypothesis, named after the economist Simon Kuznets, is that pollution in a country is low when it is depleted. As income increases, the amount of pollution generated increases. However, from a certain income threshold, pollution decreases again as pollution control technologies and administrative structures are implemented. The highest levels of pollution occur in the transition from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy when the city or country experiences the worst of both worlds.

  An Example of the Kuznets Curve for the Environment

The Kuznets curve for the environment predicts that pollution will increase over the course of a country's development before it improves on that curve, Prakash said. Chinese cities like Beijing have managed to dramatically improve their air quality while achieving a modest per capita income. However, one important reason for the cleansing of the air in China is that the government is more authoritarian. If Chinese officials give orders to shut down factories and restrict traffic before important events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics are over, it's done. The government has since drastically reduced the amount of industrial and agricultural activity in the city.

"The beauty of China is that they can do something when they want it," Prakash said. "There is nothing between the decision and the implementation."

This is not the case in India, so reducing pollution requires more finesse. To purify the air over Delhi, Prakash said the government could spend subsidies and incentives on farmers to use less polluting land management methods. This would help them to buy or rent machines and pay them extra for their harvest if they can do it without incineration of crop stubble.

India also has a law requiring that 2 percent of corporate profits be used for charity. Prakash said some of these funds could be used to help farmers and reduce pollution.

Delhi needs to reduce pollution by switching to cleaner energy. "If you step down and say what makes the biggest contribution to pollution, then fossil fuels are the biggest single contributor," Prakash said. It's not just coal in power plants, it's also about burning petrol and diesel in cars and trucks.

  A bird sits on a street lamp amidst heavy smog near Tis Hazari Court on November 7, 2019 in New Delhi, India.

Delhi's heavy air pollution has cut the lives of millions of people in Delhi by years.
Biplov Bhuyan / Hindustan Times / Getty Images

This means reducing air pollution in cities by using significantly more renewable energy and cleaner traffic. At the recent United Nations Climate Summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged that his country will more than double its production of renewable energy from 175 gigawatts to 450 gigawatts by 2022. However, Modi did not commit to reducing fossil fuel or greenhouse gas emissions.

It shows that despite all the known damage caused by air pollution, the pressure for economic development remains immense and many officials are prepared to accept the compromises.

While some of the solutions, such as wind and solar, are already in use, in a region like Delhi, a gigantic deployment needs to be made to improve the environment. This costs a lot of time, money and vision. The findings obtained in Delhi could also apply to other growing metropolitan areas of concern for air quality such as Karachi (Pakistan) and Lagos (Nigeria). "The problem can be solved," Prakash said. "But what you need is political will and a bit of imagination."

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