Air pollution, COVID: Delhi continues to fight major health issues with little gains

Stubble burning, rampant firecracker bursting on Diwali and unfavourable meteorological conditions in the early phase of winters turned the city into a gas chamber again.

Published: 31st December 2021 04:29 PM  |   Last Updated: 31st December 2021 04:29 PM   |  A+A-

Delhi pollution, Delhi AQI

Smog and air pollution in Delhi. (File photo| Parveen Negi, EPS)


NEW DELHI: Delhi will remember 2021 as a year of announcements and orders but little gains from the environment point of view, with air pollution rising to 2019 levels and the Yamuna, often referred to as the national capital's lifeline, struggling to survive the ecological assault of sewage and industrial effluents.

Stubble burning, rampant firecracker bursting on Diwali and unfavourable meteorological conditions in the early phase of winters turned the city into a gas chamber again.

The thick pungent haze over Delhi-NCR smudged landmarks from view and partially blotted out the sun for several days after Diwali, with green think-tank Centre of Science and Environment calling it one of the longest smog episodes in the city.

Even the 24-meter-tall smog tower in Connaught Place, an ambitious pilot project of the Delhi government, could not give breathable air.

Officials said smog towers can "reduce pollution only to a certain extent and one cannot expect the large air purifiers to provide clean air on hazardous air quality days".

Environmentalists and scientists have been saying there is no proven record or data globally that establishes that smog towers are effective.

Despite the Centre's Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM) issuing a slew of directions, including use of a microbial solution, to states to manage paddy residue, the count of farm fires in Punjab and Haryana exceeded the number recorded in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

On November 7, the share of farm fires in Delhi's pollution rose to 48 percent, the highest in three years.

Delhi saw the Supreme Court and the CAQM going all out to pull it out of an air crisis which forced closure of schools and construction and demolition activities for almost a month and a temporary shutdown of six coal-based power plants within a 300-km radius of Delhi and industries in NCR that failed to move to piped natural gas.

The air quality panel imposed curbs on entry of trucks, barring those engaged in essential services and run on CNG, to cut down vehicular pollution.

The CAQM issued a total of 47 directions and seven advisories during the year to curb air pollution.

While the city government ran several campaigns to reduce air pollution, including 'Red Light On Gaadi Off', anti-dust and anti-burning drives, there is no data to establish these efforts yielded results.

An extended Monsoon and record-breaking rainfall gave Delhi its best air quality in October in four years, but the air pollution in November was the worst in the month since 2015.

December recorded the longest streak of six 'severe' air quality days since 2015.

A government official said Delhi will be better prepared to deal with the situation next year and major focus will be on vehicular emissions -- vehicles contribute to about 40 percent of PM 2.5 emissions here.

"Industries in Delhi have completely switched to PNG. Action on road dust and dust pollution due to construction and demolition work, and garbage burning is ongoing. The major focus next year will be on vehicles," he said.

The Delhi government is likely to ask e-commerce companies, food delivery services and cab aggregators, which account for 30 percent of the wheels on the roads, to completely switch to electric vehicles.

Petrol pumps will be directed to not give fuel to vehicles without a pollution-under-check certificate.

Directions under the Environment (Protection) Act in this regard are expected to be issued soon.

In compliance with the National Green Tribunal's directions, the Delhi government will deregister diesel vehicles which will complete 10 years on January 1, 2022, and issue NOC so that they can be re-registered in other places.

However, no NOC will be issued for diesel vehicles which have completed 15 years or more.

The city government is likely to give some funds received from the Centre under National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) to municipal corporations for the first time for management of road dust and potholes and prevent open waste burning.

This is the first time Delhi has got funds under NCAP, a national-level strategy for 20 to 30 per cent reduction in PM2.5 and PM10 concentration by 2024.

Delhi has been allocated Rs 18.74 crore under NCAP.

The first instalment of Rs 11 crore was released earlier this month, according Union environment ministry officials.

In 2022, Delhi will publish its first 'State of Environment Report' which will have data on all key areas, including sewage, water quality, waste collection and segregation.

"The multiplicity of departments in Delhi impedes problem resolution. Had it been Nagpur or Mumbai or Chennai, it would have been easier. So, the objective is to fix accountability on departments concerned," an official said.

Delhi squandered the gains made in the Yamuna water quality due to the lockdown in 2020.

The high pollution load and resultant frothing in the river in November, around Chhath, attracted global condemnation.

The Delhi government deployed 15 boats to remove toxic froth at Kalindi Kunj banks, where people gathered for Chhath despite restrictions.

Bamboo structures were installed and water sprayed from tankers to dissipate the foam.

As the administration faced flak for these 'cover-up' measures, officials admitted that the problem of frothing, a sign hazardous water quality, will continue unless sewage treatment plants (STPs) and common effluent treatment plants in Delhi are upgraded to meet the new standards and all unauthorized colonies are connected to the sewer network.

On an average, 24 out of the 35 STPs in Delhi did not meet prescribed standards for wastewater over the last one year, government data stated.

Delhi generates around 720 million gallons of wastewater a day.

The 35 STPs at 20 locations can treat up to 597 MGD and have been utilising around 90 percent of their capacity.

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has announced a 6-point action plan to clean Yamuna and constituted a cell to improve co-ordination among agencies involved in cleaning the river.

He said he will deliver on the promise he made before the 2019 assembly elections to clean the river's Delhi stretch.

The Delhi government had to grapple with the severe second wave of Covid pandemic and acute shortage of oxygen and hospital beds added to its woes in 2021, a year which also saw implementation of several welfare schemes.

Towards the latter half of the year, it was jolted by the passage of the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Bill, 2021 that established the supremacy of Lt Governor over the ruling dispensation.

Just as Delhi was limping back to normalcy, the second wave hit it with full force in April creating a chaotic situation.

The period between April-May saw the AAP government battling with acute shortages of medical oxygen, medicines, hospital beds and other logistics as around 20000 cases were reported daily, putting health infrastructure under tremendous stress.

The entire government machinery led by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal got down to meet the burgeoning demand on health services, as heart wrenching stories and scenes started coming to fore including reports of deaths in some hospitals due to oxygen shortage.

The tragedy claimed several hundred lives even as the government finding itself in a tough corner clashed with the Centre over supply of medical oxygen and medicines.

The Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Bill, 2021 was one of the several issues that led to tussle between the Kejriwal government on one hand and the Centre and its representative LG on the other.

Kejriwal termed the bill as an "insult" to the people of Delhi which takes away powers from those who were voted by people and accused the BJP of "cheating" the mandate.

Further, the tussle between the two sides became more intense over issues like doorstep delivery of ration scheme, appointment of special public prosecutors for trial of Delhi riots cases, and Kejriwal government turning down a proposal of the police to convert stadiums into holding areas to confine anti-farm law protesters.

In another flashpoint, the Kejriwal government attacked the Centre after Covid vaccination started in January, accusing it of exporting vaccines to other countries and denying it to people of India.

The Delhi government even floated a global letter of intent in May for procuring vaccines from abroad even as it kept pressuring the Centre for increased supply of doses for all the people aged 18 years and above.

Even though it primarily focussed on fighting the second wave of Covid and later recovery of the economy impacted by the pandemic and lockdown, the Kejriwal government came out with some major programmes and schemes in the areas of education, transport and health during the year.

In the health sector, it announced an ambitious Health Information Management System equipped with e-health cards for Delhiites which is likely to be rolled out early next year.

This facility will provide several benefits including online appointment of doctors.

The government also implemented Deshbhakti curriculum in schools on the occasion of Shaheed Bhagat Singh's birth anniversary.

"This curriculum will motivate our children to take pride in the country. This won't have any rote learning involved, this will be activity based curriculum through which emotions will be developed among the children," Kejriwal said at the launch of the curriculum.

Other important steps in the area of education included collaboration of Delhi Board of School Education with International Baccalaureate (IB), introduction of happiness curriculum in school syllabus and entrepreneurship classes.

The transport department of Delhi government revolutionised its services going faceless in August.

Now most of its services related to driving licences and permits can be availed online without the need to visit regional transport offices.

In a symbolic move, Kejriwal locked gates of IP Estate office at the launch of this service in August.

Push to the electric vehicle policy yielded good results for Delhi government this year as the number of e-vehicles rose to 9 per cent of total vehicles sold in September-November.

The new year may also see rolling out of hundreds of electric buses being procured by transport department on the city roads.

In the budget, the government also announced that Delhi will bid for the 2048 Olympics and a vision for it has been prepared.

Presenting the budget, Finance Minister Manish Sisodia claimed the AAP government will make the per capita income of Delhi equal to Singapore.

On the pollution remediation front, Kejriwal announced a six-point action plan to clean the Yamuna river by 2025.

Infrastructure development in the city like other sectors was hit hard due to the second Covid wave and lockdown and later curbs on construction due to deteriorated air quality in the city during winters.

The PWD projects where deadlines were pushed included Delhi's first tunnel road near Pragati Maidan, Ashram Underpass, Benito-Juarez road underpass and Barapullah phase-3 elevated corridor.

As the year drew to a close, Delhi sits tight with Covid cases rising and Omicron threat likely to push the city into another round of curbs.

Kejriwal has assured people that his government is ready to meet the challenge with adequate arrangements of oxygen, hospital beds, medicines and other logistics.


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