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Delhi Pollution Crisis: A Gasp for Clean Air

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“There’s so much pollution in air now that if it weren’t for our lungs, there’d be no place to put it all.” - Robert Orben.


The pollution seems to veil our surroundings with more than just solid or liquid particles and gases. The fact that the health effects of pollution imperil human lives remains as perpetual as the disaster has been, for decades now. 

 India was the first country to have made provisions for the protection and improvement of the environment through the 42nd Amendment in its Constitution in 1976. Since colonial days there were laws in place to ensure environmental protection and we continue to have better, more suited laws in place till date. But their abysmal implementation and unsynchronised development and awareness has contributed towards everything but respite from the noxious environment.  

New Delhi serves as the capital of India and also, as the worst of any major city in the world, infamously known for its pestilent air quality. Despite having overwhelming evidence of the gravity of air pollution and its dreadful consequences, India’s policy measures and their implementation currently is not yet equipped to deal with the severity. While we remain in oblivion to the measures being taken to curtail the situation in Delhi, the thought of a clean environment and fresh air only seems utopian with each passing day. 

According to “Assessment of air quality during lockdowns in Delhi” released by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in February 2021 during the lockdown period in 2020, there were an average reduction of 43 per cent and 61 per cent in PM2.5 and NOx concentrations in 32 Central Pollution Control Board monitoring stations, in comparison to the pre-lockdown period in 2019 wherein adverse meteorological conditions like reduced wind speed was observed. 


Major contributing factors 

Rice and wheat are widely grown in states around Delhi. Many farmers in Punjab and Haryana set fire to the leftover rice stalks and straw after the harvest, in the month of November. This large scale crop residue, stubble or paddy burning at a time when temperatures are low results in a dense layer of smog over the Delhi NCR. 

The number of vehicles in Delhi was 10.9 million in March 2018, including over 7 million two-wheelers. While the annual growth rate of vehicles dropped from 8.13 per cent in 2005-06 to 5.81 per cent in 2017-18, the number of vehicles per thousand population increased from 317 to 598 during the period. The transport sector is the main source of PM2.5 emissions in Delhi. 

Industries around NCR have a major impact on the quality of air in Delhi NCR. Assessments by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) suggest that the national capital is home to and surrounded by critically polluted industrial clusters that do not meet the air, water or soil pollution parameters. These industries use cheaper fossil fuel-based alternatives which further contribute to pollution. Though the Supreme Court has banned the use of cheaper alternatives in the NCR in 2017, they are still being used in neighbouring states hastening the poor quality of air in Delhi.

Then the construction sites are also a major contributor to air pollution. According to the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC), 30 per cent of air pollution in the territory is caused by dust from construction sites. Moreover, the outskirts of NCT have roughly 360 brick kilns, mostly in the Jhajjar, Faridabad and Ghaziabad regions, where the businesses peak from December to June. Hence, emissions rise during the winter months because in summer and spring, the winds are relatively faster, and gases do not stay suspended in one place.

Clean environment - a funda-mental right

Since the last decade, one of the concerns which is rising globally is the augmenting level of pollution and now this menace is often equated with the Right to Healthy Environment. 

In India, various enactments envisage the rules regarding the protection of the environment and the redressal forum for the same is the National Green Tribunal, yet no enactment ensures a clean and healthy environment for the citizens of India. Even the Indian Constitution which embodies the fundamental rights of the citizens in Part-III does not explicitly include the Right to a safe and healthy environment. Therefore, to protect this right of the citizens the Judiciary through the various judicial pronouncements has increased the ambit of Article 21 (Right to Life: No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law.), in such a manner that it is now evolved to provide the environmental justice too.  

Supreme Court in the case of Subhash Kumar V. State of Bihar  recognised that if anything endangers the quality of life of the citizens from the polluted air to polluted water, then a citizen shall file a suit under Article 32 for removing such pollutant from air or water as is covered in the ambit of Right to Life of Article 21, which includes right to life and enjoyment of pollution-free water and air for an absolute joy of life and through this decision, the Supreme Court opened the door for environmental litigation.

In MC Mehta V Union of India, one of the landmark judgments was delivered by the Supreme Court with regard to the Air Pollution of Delhi. In this case, the Supreme Court shed light on the ever-growing Air Pollution in Delhi, and further, concerns were also raised towards the ill-functioning of the government enforcement agencies despite the existence of the adequate legislations regarding the control of Air Pollution. It was submitted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (“MoEF”) and acknowledged by the court that heavy vehicles including trucks, buses, and defence vehicles were the main contributors to the air pollution problem. 

The court order that all vehicles in Delhi registered before 1995 to be converted into Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) run and held that it’s the duty of the government that air should not be tarnished due to the vehicular emissions and thereby directed the medium or light-goods vehicles not conforming Euro II norms, or not using low sulphur, low benzene fuel and plying on Inter-

State routes to be restricted to pass through Delhi. Furthermore, the Supreme Court propounded the concept of the “absolute liability which shall not be delegated” whereupon if an enterprise has stored any harmful product and if harm is caused due to such product, then the enterprise shall be held responsible for instigating the damage- in spite of having had adopted all the precautionary measures.


Existing policies: Stop-gap solutions?

The Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) was formulated in 2016 and notified in 2017 for Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) to prevent worsening of Air Quality of Delhi-NCR and prevent PM10 and PM2.5 levels to go beyond the ‘moderate’ national Air Quality Index (AQI) category. So far, the steps taken by the authorities under the GRAP have been erratic and delayed. 

The Central Government also launched National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) as a long-term, time-bound, national-level strategy to tackle the air pollution problem across the country in a comprehensive manner with targets to achieve 20 per cent to 30 per cent reduction in Particulate Matter concentrations by 2024, keeping 2017 as the base year for the comparison of concentration. So far, the spending on NCAP has been limited to the expansion of air quality monitoring, source assessment studies, and dust-control measures. NCAP, as a measure, lacks accountability and tenacity!

Ongoing fiasco of Delhi air pollution in Supreme Court

COVID hit our country in March 2020, however, the residents of Delhi are equipped with N-95 masks for the past six years. Every year soon after Diwali, the air pollution levels in Delhi increase drastically making it difficult to breathe, for this, the government has been trying to implement various schemes, yet, the results are not even near the good. 

This year also, in spite of the measures taken by the government, the rise in pollution levels has taken a toll since November, and owing to the hereto, a PIL was lodged in the Supreme Court for which the litigation is ongoing. 

Currently, the debate orbits around the point that the stubble burning by the farmers of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana contribute significantly to polluting the air in the National Capital Region of Delhi. In accordance with this, Senior Advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi who is arguing on the behalf of Delhi Government proposed that the farmers shall be penalized for stubble burning as it contributes 0 to 58 per cent in the Air pollution, meanwhile, the Supreme Court is adamant of the fact and is of the view that the farmers shall not be penalized. 

Supreme Court is pressing on the point that the government of Delhi and its neighbouring states are incompetent to control this menace of Air Pollution, the court even expressed its dissatisfaction with the inactions of the government in the hearing dated 3rd December 2021. Presently, the construction work in and around Delhi is at a halt and schools are closed for an indefinite period, further, some of the industries are only allowed to run eight hours a day. 


Way forward

As India is in its development phase, the industries have always a very high requirement of energy and power, which is provided through the coal power plants across the country. This again raises the concern of health hazards due to air pollution caused by carbon emissions. Henceforth, the government should bring a paradigm shift to electricity or CNG based power plants. Currently, there are six power plants in Delhi out of which two are coal-based. 

A comprehensive modelling frame- work with newly equipped technology to quantify the electricity savings, with thermal efficiency and efficacious environmental performance.

Management regarding the agricultural residual is one of the primary concerns, as mentioned in the article above, farmers in the nearby states of Delhi tend to burn the residual of the crops, which is reckoned among the major contributors of air pollution. The alternative approach towards the management of this stubble burning would not only significantly solve the air pollution problem but will also result in a great economic benefactor. The other way shall be the use of agricultural residues as the raw material for pulp and paper industries, or as biomass for biofuel production, plus, the incorporation of the stubble into the soil will be beneficial to make the soil fertile. 

It’s about time that the policymakers realise the need to treat the vehicular emission problem critically, especially in the NCR. 

There shall be a systematic transformation ad shift of the cost-effective and performance-based fuel. Along the similar lines, there shall be the stricter implementation of the Bharat Stage -VI emission standard, whereby they are designed to have an effect of 25 per cent reduction in Nitrogen Oxide emission in petrol vehicles and 43 per cent reduction of hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxides in diesel vehicles. 

The rising transportation activity is also one major concern in Delhi; the demand to move people and goods further and faster is growing rapidly. Although Delhi has one of the best metro rail infrastructures, the city which never sleeps still needs more enhanced availability of Public Transport. The enhancement regarding the public transport will provide a two-fold benefit: less pollution as there will be fewer private vehicles and the increased mobility which is likely to provide more economic opportunities for all the sectors- from primary to tertiary.  

Those who ruminate the beauty and the jewels of the earth find resources of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something eternally therapeutic in the repeated abstains of nature- the promise of dawn after night, spring after winter, and perhaps, a clean, fresh and renewed energy of air after the city bathes in the smokes.

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