Come November, and the residents of Delhi-NCR start paying the bills. Not for the usual amenities, but for the pollution that cloaks the nation’s capital. If burning firecrackers despite a Supreme Court ban were not enough, stubble burning from Punjab reduces Delhi to a toxic gas chamber annually, earning it the tag of the most polluted city in the world.
If Delhi suffers from air pollution, Bengaluru suffers from some of the world’s worst water pollution. The City of Lakes now has two of its most iconic water bodies — Varthur Lake and Bellandur lake — spewing toxic and inflammable foam. Both cities featured in the 100 smart cities programme, which when launched in 2014, was touted as India’s biggest urban development program. Just four years later, both cities are steadily becoming unlivable, becoming a symbol of our policymakers’ skewed urban vision.
“Environmental concerns are never high on priority for urban development, and we pay attention only when the situation becomes alarming. It is important to make our cities liveable before we make them smart,” says Sunita Narain, environmentalist and Director General, Centre for Science and Environment.
Scientists from the Indian Institute of Science say Bengaluru will be “unlivable” by 2025. Delhi is already in the midst of a health emergency due to toxic smog.
Studies say Delhi’s pollution is equal to smoking 25 cigarettes daily. How much can one depend on masks and air purifiers? What about those who cannot afford a mask, let alone an air purifier? “It’s scary. It can precipitate an acute asthma attack, various respiratory diseases and in the long run it will increase risk of lung cancer,” warns Dr Arvind Kumar, chest surgeon.
Despite the deadly smog which returns every year, policy makers have hardly gone in for any effective measures. In fact, over 1.12 lakh trees were done away with in the national capital over the past 13 years, and earlier this month the Union Road and Transport Ministry called Delhi’s chief minister seeking permission to cut more.
“How can we trust that policymakers are serious about the health of the city? Despite knowing about the air quality, rather than increasing green cover, 40,000 trees were marked for the axe to build residences for babus,” said Deepak Gulati one of the residents of South Delhi.
Amitabh Kant, CEO, Niti Aayog, admits a long term vision is needed to fix the problem. Kant also accepted that things may worsen with rapid urbanisation. “Our cities are overcrowded and rapid urbanisation is exerting pressure on air, water, energy. In next 20-30 years, depleting resources will be a matter of great concern. The challenge will be to manage too little resources with too many people,” Kant admitted.