Can Delhi’s Air Be Saved?
The first thing to know about air pollution in Delhi is that the situation is beyond redemption. The time for reacting, for making fundamental but realistic changes to how this city runs, for educating people, is long gone. We know it, the government knows it, the courts know it, even the media has given up on reporting this to us in language designed to compel us to panic.
You don’t need this chart to tell you the situation is hopeless, but it does confirm that this is so. The Air Quality Index (AQI) tracks several categories of pollutants and measures their values over a 24-hour cycle. By all estimates, it’s a fair, undramatic assessment of air quality. It isn’t a kneejerk number based off going out on Diwali night and concluding that the level of a category of particulate matter generated only by firecrackers is a bazillion percent higher compared with a normal night. It’s a responsible number, adopted after a lot of deliberation. And that’s precisely what makes it frightening.
India’s Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) literature on the AQI tells us that this number should ideally be below 100. Anything above it elevates risks for sensitive groups, those working outdoors and, eventually, everybody. At an AQI above 300, the CPCB recommends actions such as no-tolerance to visibly polluting vehicles, industries, and construction activities, and actively regulating traffic.
In the 24 months before this October, Delhi has endured 6 months, plural, where its AQI has averaged over 300. In 11 other months, it has averaged over 200. These readings conform to the pattern of a devastating sine wave – bad in the summer, worse in the winter. In the winter, colder, heavier air tends to settle more. In the summer, because rain is around and convection is your friend, the AQI is better. It’s likely, therefore, that the coming November to January will be 300+ months too, like they were last year, and the year before that.
Go up through the 300s, and the air eventually hits a point where it just breaks up and becomes a mess. It makes for a suffocating visual, let alone a suffocating reality. Go past 400, and that mark may as well be called the ‘you have no business living here’ line. Since November 2015, Delhi has logged 34 days above the 400 line. Thirty-four days worthy of an emergency declaration saying, don’t step outside, it would be actively endangering your life to do so.
Relative to recent history, 2017 has, so far, actually been decent. Yet, it took Delhi’s wettest June in a decade to drag the AQI numbers down after 8 months north of 200. It’s a decent year that still flattens out only to a fraction over one good breathing day, singular, per week. That’s how bad it is.
That’s also why the recent Supreme Court ban on firecrackers for Diwali is good for a bit of gallows humour, but not much more. In effect, the Supreme Court wants simply to observe air pollution levels without the variable of firecrackers in the equation.
The short answer is that, in 2015, AQI numbers for the Diwali week were statistically indistinguishable from the AQI average for the month. In 2016, when Diwali coincided with a large-scale crop residue burning cycle across north Indian farms that increased in scale by over 24% in some places, the Diwali week numbers were higher than normal, but the numbers were higher still for the week after Diwali week, when the crop residue burning persisted but Diwali didn’t. (AQI numbers for Diwali weeks 2015 and 2016 are marked on the chart in blue. If they weren’t blue, they’d be red, of course.) The CPCB, which has been summoned to the Supreme Court multiple times before, has been collecting before/after pollution data on Diwali since at least 2004. This data shows higher peaks on Diwali, but isn’t conclusive on its correlation with even medium-term effects on air quality.
As such, sure, a ban on firecrackers makes a non-zero amount of sense. But to pretend that it will make Delhi’s air “better”, whatever that means, or that firecrackers are the root of the problem, is laughable. Equally, some people have reasoned that firecrackers are fringe contributors to the problem, and that there must be ulterior, anti-Diwali motives at play. Perhaps that’s true, and the firecracker industry is merely low-hanging fruit. It does, however, take a special kind of gift for someone’s reaction to a bona fide environmental emergency to be to convert it into some kind of weird implied battle for religious victimhood.
Either way, it looks as if the firecracker ban is another way for the establishment to plug fingers in its ears about the real, entrenched causes of Delhi’s air pollution. The trouble is, requiring the construction industry to adopt cleaner equipment and methods would cripple the profitability of some very powerful people. Long-term restrictions on vehicles in a city abnormally dependent on them would invite public anger. Making fundamental changes to public transport or finding better ways of maintaining Delhi’s 28,508 kilometres of roads would involve overcoming inertia that’s almost a badge of honour at this point.
The problem is so extraordinary that the only parallels exist in Chinese cities hurting from industrial emissions. Their response was a brutal and coercive crackdown on thousands of factories. It saw private owners and local administrations toughen up and eat losses worth billions in industries like power generation and steel production. We have a government that, nearly three weeks after last November’s airpocalypse – when Delhi suffered twelve 400+ days in two weeks – said that there was “no conclusive study” that it knew of to suggest that crop residue burning “would always impact the quality of air” in Delhi.
Look, maybe this year’s Diwali pollution numbers will be lower. Maybe that’ll be because of the firecracker ban. Maybe it’ll be because this Diwali is earlier in the year than it has been recently, and the weather isn’t cold enough to hold the pollution down. Maybe it’ll be because it doesn’t overlap exactly with the sharp end of a crop residue burning cycle that torched over 2,000 square kilometres in Haryana last year. Maybe it’ll be because of wind patterns. I don’t know.
What I do know is that we’re hurtling unerringly towards the red zone for one more winter, firecrackers or not. If it wasn’t before, maybe it’s finally time to appreciate the scale and permanence of what’s happened to this city. It’s certainly time to understand that, as citizens, we’re pretty much on our own on this.