As the national capital gasps under smog, Issues such as the filthy Yamuna, unprecedented vehicular traffic and a rising crime graph, continue to push the city towards a dangerous trap.
In the times of the Mahabharata, Delhi was a jewel in a great forest named Khandava Van. The credit to building Indraprastha, the ancient name of India’s modern capital, goes to Prince Yudhishthira, who cleared the forest. Its grandeur was so dazzling that the envious Kauravas began to hate the Pandavas. Centuries later, Delhi is nobody’s envy. The city is choking on toxic smog and air. The water of the once-great Yamuna, which had flowed through the chapters of the epic like a witness of changing destinies, has been poisoned. The city was reincarnated eight times between 1100 AD and 1947—near the Qutab Minar, Siri, Tughlaqabad, Jahanpanah, Firozabad, Purana Qila, Shahjahanabad and now New Delhi, each one built around Yudhishthira’s palace and on the ruins of its predecessor. Today, is it heading towards the ninth?
With the speed at which things are going from bad to worse, everybody’s gasping for air, pun intended. Why weren’t preventive measures put into practice, many ask. After all, the Arvind Kejriwal government knew this were to happen; it is an annual phenomenon. His reaction, however, came a little late in the day: shutting down schools and coal-based Badarpur power plant, banning construction and demolition works, prohibiting the use of diesel gensets, and sprinkling of water on roads that are 100-foot wide. Some also saw through his initial hesitation in criticising crop burning in Punjab as he’s a stakeholder in the impending elections there. Lack of preparedness, overall apathy towards the worsening situation and repeated policy and implementation failures, brought down the 1.86-crore city residents to choke under toxicity.
Delhi’s air quality has been a cause of concern since 1985, when a petition was filed in the Supreme Court to secure the health of the people, and protect and improve the environment. In the following year, a three-member bench suggested a slew of measures for bettering the air quality, which stated lowering of sulphur content in diesel, ensuring supply of only lead-free petrol, phasing out of polluting vehicles, lowering of benzene content in petrol, and ensuring that all new vehicles meet Euro-II standards by September 2000. That was then.
Air Quality Index post-Diwali this year touched 552 in some areas, the worst air quality in the past 17 years, forcing the Delhi government to issue a health advisory asking people to avoid highly-polluted areas and cautioned those with asthma and lung ailments to stay indoors. The safe breathable limit is 50. The thick smog brought visibility down to only 400 metres.
“Pollution has been around since eons and it’s been getting worse, but political preparedness has been shoddy every single year. What’s the use of making all the precautionary announcements Kejriwal is making now? They should have been made before the situation got out of hand,” says Polash Mukerjee, Research Associate, Clean Air and Sustainable Mobility at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). Air pollution alone is responsible for 10,000 to 30,000 deaths annually in Delhi as it is the fifth leading cause of death in India, according to a CSE report.
“People complaining of respiratory illnesses has raised at least by 50 per cent; 11 per cent children have asthma. Particles less than 10 mic and especially less than 2.5 mic are very damaging to the lungs and heart. In lungs, these cause bronchospasm and inflammation, in heart it promotes atherosclerosis and thrombosis,” says Dr SK Chhabra, Head of Pulmonology Department, Primus Super Speciality Hospital. Amarjiit Singh, an 85-year-old professional working with an energy think-tank, has lost his voice. The high pollution levels have chocked his throat.
The soreness in his oesophagus is getting worse. Sneezing accompanied with muffled coughing gives him a headache through the day. “Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong in the last few days. To remain healthy, I must walk, but to not get ill I must stay indoors. What should I do?” he questions.
According to health experts, air pollution can cause 30 per cent reduction in sex activity due to its adverse effects. The heavy metals in the air also directly affect the hormones in the body.
What most people don’t release is that we’re all sitting on an environmental time bomb. Work on various fronts requires round-the-year attention and not just at the time of a crisis. In addition to curbing farm fires of Punjab and Haryana, and reducing pollution from firecrackers, the numerous small-scale fires also need to be discouraged. Smoke from the two big landfills in Gazipur and Bhalswa respectively are making the situation worse.
Roads remain dusty and implementation of the Indian Road Congress guidelines continues to be the greatest challenge. “Some of the government rules aren’t full proof. For example, it moved industries of red category outside Delhi. That will never help because pollution doesn’t know any boundaries,” says Mukerjee.
Delhi is not only the world’s most polluted city, it is also one of the most dangerous and unsafe cities. According to the latest National Crime Records Bureau data, close to 25 per cent of the 670,000 crimes in India were committed in Delhi in 2015. Rates of lecherous overtures were the maximum.
“Three out of five women are sexually harassed in Delhi everyday. The assault can range from staring to rape,” says Krati Sharma, programme coordinator of Safe Cities Campaign, Jagori. There are two things that she feels very strongly about: Violence and secondly the fear of violence. “Delhi isn’t designed to take care of women’s interest. The public spaces don’t belong to her. Look at the toilets situation. Very few women use them. It’s the same with parks. You’ll seldom see women taking naps there,” she says.
The issue of poor last-mile connectivity also plays strong on women’s mind as it makes the city inconvenient and unsafe to live in. “Ever since I remember, there hasn’t been a day when somebody on the road hasn’t stared, tried to touch or pass smutty comments. Ogling has always been synonymous with Delhi,” says Chandini Jain, an MNC employee in Gurugram. Helplines don’t work much either. “I had dialled 1091 a few years back when a man was repeatedly following me from work everyday. After hearing me out once, no follow-up call was made and finally, I had to lodge a police complaint myself,” says Varnika Guha, a sales executive in Noida.
Least to say, there hasn’t been any substantial change in the safety initiatives for women. “You still have the police trying to persuade the complainant to compromise. There are still no shelters for women facing violence. The AAP government talks about putting more surveillance but that’s not enough,” says Kavita Krishnan, Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, adding, “There are no state-funded campaigns that assert the autonomy of women.”
Even the policeman-population ratio remains significantly low. The ratio is close to one policeman for 5,568 Delhiites. The Bureau of Police Research and Development recommends one cop for 568 people approximately.
Delhi’s roads are deadly too as they claim at least five lives a day. Drunken driving is the leading cause, according to the Ministry of Road Transport and Highway. “People here move around with bad attitudes. It’s most disheartening when an educated person demonstrates his crassness by threatening or name calling upon being fined for his mistake,” says a senior traffic control officer from the Central District. “Road designing is completely outdated. Accidents occur due to poorly constructed roads and speed-breakers. Two-wheelers need a separate lane,” he says, enlisting the most accident-prone zones. Ashram Chowk tops the list, followed by Shastri Park crossing and Sarai Kale Khan.
The increasing migrant pollution isn’t helping the situation either. According to National Population Stabilisation Fund, urban migrant slum population is growing due to rapid rise in population. According to the 2001 Census, the population of Delhi increased by 285,000 (39.82 per cent) due to migrants.
As the city battles a dangerous air quality at the moment, environmentalists believe the next big thing will be water crisis. The starting point of this discussion is the Yamuna, the river that’s been reduced to a drain. Its character has been stained by unprecedented flow of raw sewage, chemicals, bio-medical and household waste. There are 201 storm water drains which combine into 22 outfalls into the river, all carrying a toxic cocktail of sewage and industrial effluents. The Yamuna is dying, to say the least. It is without doubt the worst polluted stretch of any river flowing through a national capital, anywhere.
“It is also an enigma. Even after having spent more than `1,500 crore in the name of Yamuna Action Plans, not much has changed. With an average DO (dissolved oxygen) at 0, against the norm of upwards of four, BOD (biological oxygen demand) of 35 against the norm of less than three and Coliform (harmful bacteria) count of millions against the norm of not more than 500, what can one talk of its pollution levels?” says Manoj Misra, the Convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan.
Till the lakhs of polluting industries operating out of unauthorised and even residential areas don’t fall under the pollution control body’s radar, they’ll blissfully keep polluting the river. As these places act as prolific breeding grounds for mosquitoes, carriers of dengue, it’s no surprise that dengue cases have gone up by eight times and cholera by seven times in the past five years, according to Praja Foundation. “Worried about the pollution of the Yamuna, the National Green Tribunal had imposed a fine of `5,000 on individuals for throwing waste or religious items into the river, but it continues to be dirtied,” adds Mishra.
Delhi has had many chances to bring itself gains to stand out on the world map like during the time of the first Asian Games in 1951. As the host city again in 1982, the entire Asian Games Village area was developed for the athletes. In 2010, the capital held the Commonwealth Games and in the process got a huge facelift under the modernisation and beautification drive but all that got buried under the shame that came with the scandals and corruption surrounding the games.
The environmental implications of urbanisation are considered mostly as an afterthought. In terms of planning, it’s really old. The drainage system, for instance, was last planned in 1977 when the population was 62,20,406. Today it’s 18,686,902. The inner linings are damaged today. Less than 50 per cent of drains are linked to sewers. Around 50 per cent of colonies are unauthorised and not linked to the drainage system.
There are many alarming trends, says Amritha Ballal, an architect, urbanist and author. Urban planning has become completely divorced from the carrying capacity of the land, she believes. “Delhi has had water shortage for long, and now we lack fresh air as well. Food security is not even identified as a concern; most of the construction in the last couple of decades has been on some of the most fertile green-field lands,” she says, advocating that Delhi shouldn’t be treated as an urban island. It is part of the NCR, she says, which at 46 million people is one of the largest urban agglomerations in the world.
“If millions in one of the most critical political and economic hubs in the country breathing toxic air for a week is not a national health emergency, then what is?”
The construction approach till now has been economic- and engineering-based. What we need now is to make it environment-centric. Development models that date back to when the city was a tiny organism have to be revised. “Urban growth of most Indian cities today is now driven by a perceived dependence on the auto mobiles, air-conditioning and lifts etc., leading to a built environment that is sprawling, insular, resource-intensive and ill -equipped to deal with economic or environmental shocks.
Paradoxically, most urban citizens cannot afford either cars, ACs or lifts, thereby making the underlying basis of the city planning inherently exclusionary—economically and socially,” she says. Instead of luxury housing centres and resource-guzzling malls, we need more mixed land use, mixed income developments, designed for sustainability with inclusive public spaces and access to quality public transport.
In 2000, Delhi’s air had become considerably clean with the 65,000 vehicles being converted into CNG making the city with the maximum number of vehicles running on green fuel in the world. Even as the Supreme Court imposed a strict deadline for the conversion of public transport to CNG, the final decision proved fruitful in bringing down the pollution levels.
But one thing that is not bearing fruit are the ornamental cycas trees that have been planted all over the city. Tripat Parmar of NGO Deeksha instead has developed 320 herbal gardens in Delhi. Tulsi, aloe-vera and other indigenous medicinal verities have been put here. “Delhi will have to follow strict rules such as one person, one car. Burning of garbage has to be banned. Employers should encourage working from home and finally, individuals should plan their chores judiciously so that they don’t take the car out often,” says Parmar.
In December 1958, Jawaharlal Nehru addressing a Delhi University convocation had said, “We face the good and the bad of India in Delhi city which has been the grave of many empires and the nursery of a republic. What a tremendous story of hers! Here the tradition of millennia of our history surrounds us at every step, and the procession of innumerable generations passes by before our eyes.”
“Heavy metals in the air affect the hormones. Already, 15 per cent of India's male population is infertile.
Dr (Brig) R K Sharma, Head, IVF Dept, Primus Super Specialty Hospital
“Delhi will have to follow strict rules such as one person, one car. Burning of garbage has to be banned. Employers should encourage working from home.”
Tripat Parmar NGO Deeksha
“Pollution has been around since aeons and it’s been getting worse, but political preparedness has been shoddy every year. What’s the use of making all the precautionary announcements Arvind Kejriwal is making now?
Polash Mukerjee Research Associate, Clean Air and Sustainable Mobility, Centre for Science and Environment
(With Bureau inputs)