The Dark Side of Uncontrolled Urbanisation

Delhi occupies the 11th spot on the list of the world’s most polluted cities, according to a report released by the WHO on 2nd June, 2016.  On the 8th of November, 2017, the government ordered around 6,000 schools in the National Capital Region (hereinafter collectively referred to as ‘Delhi’, for the sake of simplicity) to shut down at least until the end of the week on account of the choking smog that descended over North India. The Chief Minister of Delhi described the city as a “gas chamber”. The people of Delhi spend most of their time dealing with pollution-related problems, turning to air purifiers, nose filters and indoor plants, whereas stepping outside the house is discouraged, in order to prevent respiratory problems.

Some parts of the Indian capital have recorded pollution levels which are 40 times more than the safety level recommended by the World Health Organization, as per the Washington Post. The underprivileged, economically weaker sections of society suffer the most, with thousands of homeless families facing air pollution that can do irreparable damage to the heart, brains and lungs, especially in children.

According to Bloomberg, by mid-afternoon on the 8th of November, the level of carcinogenic pollutants in New Delhi’s air was roughly 10 times the reading in Beijing, a city that is globally infamous for its pollution levels.  As per a U.S. embassy monitor, the levels of the deadliest tiny particulate matter, known as PM2.5, rose to extremely high levels overnight on November 8. PM2.5 is an air pollutant that can penetrate deep into a person’s lungs, causing significant problems including reduced visibility.

Six people were injured when 13 vehicles were caught in a pile-up on the Yamuna Expressway, on the morning of the 8th of November, due to reduced visibility. The economic loss is unimaginable too. A study by the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai found that air pollution cost Mumbai and Delhi approximately US$10.66 billion in 2015. Doctors have stated that the impact of being under Delhi’s smog is similar to inhaling 50 cigarettes a day, with the Indian Medical Association declaring a “state of medical emergency”, according to the Guardian.

Delhi, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, is also one of the most polluted cities in the world, primarily due to pollution from diesel engines, coal-fired power plants and industrial emissions. A pollution-heavy Diwali celebration in Delhi, along with illegal burning of crop stubble after the harvest in Northern India have lead to unprecedented escalation of pollution levels.

The air quality usually worsens just before the onset of winter as the cool air traps the pollutants near the ground, not allowing them to disperse into the atmosphere. This phenomenon is known as inversion.  According to the Guardian, thirteen coal-fired power plants lie within a 300km radius of Delhi. The governments from the neighboring states of Punjab and Haryana have failed to convince farmers to comply with the ban on burning crop waste. The purposeful ignorance of a large proportion of the population is one of the main contributors to this extensive pollution.

The apex green court, NGT (National Green Tribunal) banned crop burning in 2015. However, imposition of fines coupled with monetary incentives for not burning crops have all failed to make a difference. Data from NASA shows that crop burning across agricultural belts in Punjab and Haryana intensified during 27th, 29th and 31st October, just before the pollution levels started to rise in Delhi. Agricultural stubble, weighing an estimated 35 million tons is set ablaze every year to make room for winter crop, according to Hindustan Times. The Northwesterly winds carry smoke and fog from these areas in Punjab and Haryana to Delhi.

Though the government has introduced a set of emergency measures to deal with this issue, a long-term, sustainable solution is required to make the city habitable. The government ordered a few brick kilns and a coal-fired power plant to shut down, and even introduced measures to lower vehicle emissions even before the onset of winter.   The air pollution in Delhi is still creating a multitude of health related problems. The government must understand that sudden measures will not be enough to improve the state of the city. It must introduce measures which are sustainable, in order to provide a more permanent solution to the problem.

The government must introduce and actively implement measures to deal with pollution at the individual household level. These measures could include greater usage of public transport to reduce vehicle emissions, constraints on the number of privately-owned vehicles allowed per capita, mandatory usage of environmentally safe products, and other similar measures. To reduce the effect of pollution caused by burning of crop waste, the heads of all the states in the Indo-Gangetic plain must reach a consensus on the measures required to mitigate such environmental risks.

The city of Delhi is of major importance in terms of geo politics and economics. Air pollution upsets the much required socio-economic stability. All stakeholders involved, including the “common man” must take steps to mitigate risks arising from pollution, in order to make the city livable once again. A city famous for its historical significance has been turned into a “gas chamber”. Immediate reformation is an urgent requirement.