NEW DELHI: With Delhi being adjudged the most polluted capital in the world for the fourth consecutive year in 2021, experts feel that the lack of systematic implementation of plans and policies to fight air pollution in the entire airshed has been keeping the problem alive.
An airshed is the entire area over which the pollutants disperse due to meteorological and geographical factors.
Delhi is the world's most polluted capital for the fourth consecutive year in 2021, with pollution rising almost 15 per cent over the previous year, according to the World Air Quality Report released by IQAir, a Swiss firm.
Air pollution levels (96.4 micrograms per cubic meter) in the capital were around 20 times above the WHO-prescribed safe limit of five micrograms per cubic meter.
The reason why Delhi hasn't been able to improve its air quality all these years is the lack of a systematic and comprehensive policy implementation targeting absolute emission load reduction, Sunil Dahiya from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air said.
London and Beijing were more polluted than Delhi at one time but they improved their air quality with the systematic and coordinated implementation of policies, he said.
"In Delhi, we have a plethora of policies and agencies, including the Commission for Air Quality Management and the National Clean Air Programme. Several pollution-related cases are in courts and the city government is also making efforts. But, little has been done keeping the larger airshed in mind. That's the reason the overall emission load, primarily due to fossil fuel burning, has not reduced," Dahiya said.
Despite transportation accounting for a large share in the overall emission load in Delhi, the government has shied away from capping the number of cars and setting a target to reduce the consumption of diesel and petrol.
Though the Delhi government has introduced Delhi Electric Vehicles policy which aims at increasing the EV share in total vehicle sales to 25 percent by 2024, vehicles plying in neighbouring areas also affect its air quality, Dahiya said.
According to The Energy and Resources Institute, Delhi could reduce its PM 2.5 concentrations by nearly 35 percent by 2030 as compared to the 2019 emissions if efforts are made to manage pollution in the entire national capital region.
Karthik Ganesan, a research fellow at Council on Energy, Environment and Water, said all industries in the national capital region are yet to switch to PNG, barring Delhi and that doesn't solve the problem.
Also, public transport augmentation in Delhi has not happened speedily. The authorities are constructing peripheral expressways but that doesn't take the fossil fuel-driven vehicles far from the city, he said.
Ganesan said if air pollution has reduced in the capital over the years, as claimed by the authorities, they should tell what factors led to the decrease.
"And, we should not be talking about air pollution in winter alone. The air is equally bad in summers and nobody talks about the Decision Support System of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology," he said.
Though the city government has taken several steps to reduce air pollution like directing fuel stations not to give fuel without a valid pollution-under-control certificate, there is no way to know whether the directions are being implemented on the ground.
Another problem with Delhi is the multiplicity of agencies which hamper the implementation of plans and policies to curb air pollution, Ganesan rued.
"The steps to reduce air pollution are all laid out in the city action plan. The authorities should now focus on their implementation," he added.
Chandra Bhushan, President and CEO of the International Forum for Environment, Sustainability & Technology, said the problem is that authorities have a very simplistic approach to deal with air pollution in India.
"We think if we can deal with certain sectors, the issue will be resolved. It won't. For example, our focus has been mainly on the transport sector -- we brought in BS VI, CNG and now EVs, while burning of biomass and coal accounts for around 80 percent of the air pollution in our country," he said.
The expert said thermal power plants not being able to implement emission standards has been the biggest failure of the Environment Ministry and the Central Pollution Control Board.
"Till the time we reduce burning of biomass and use of coal. There has been no country which has been able to reduce air pollution without reducing the burning of biomass and coal. China, for example, reduced the burning of biomass for cooking which we are also trying," he said.
Chandra Bushan said the biggest step that authorities in India have taken to reduce pollution is providing LPG connection to every household.
Biomass burning is the one common source responsible for a large percentage of air pollution in the country.
"Asking people to obtain a valid PUCC is easy as compared to asking people not to burn wood for cooking. We will have to make LPG affordable to be able to do that," he added.
"Desertification is the second major factor for increased air pollution in Delhi over the last 15 years. We will have to restore large parcels of degraded land, restore our water bodies and plant trees," he said.
Jai Dhar Gupta, founding member of Citizens Movement 'My Right to Breathe', said, "15-20 times the WHO safe level is alarming."
"What's more alarming is that we've known about it for years and chose to disregard it. The only explanation for those wondering why levels have moved up 15 percent in a Covid year is that economic hardship has pushed the urban poor from LPG cylinders to using chulas with biomass."
Also, the vehicular adoption and especially the luxury gas guzzling segment has been off the handle. Air pollution and climate change step from the use of fossil fuels, we have to move to cleaner renewable sources now," Dhar said.