Death by breathing


With heavy toxic smog hanging in the air and the Air Quality Index (AQI) touching 1100 on Sunday, Delhi presents an apocalyptic image as the most polluted city in the world. The national capital’s average AQI was almost seven times more than the second most polluted city, Lahore, and 14 times higher than the safe limit. As the residents of the city virtually live in a gas chamber and suffer from the harmful impact of the pollutants, the political parties are engaged in a blame-game. The Centre and the governments of Delhi, Punjab and Haryana must realise that the region is facing a serious public health emergency that brooks no further delay. Though Delhi chokes every year, the authorities have done precious little to reduce pollution. This is in sharp contrast to the efforts made by China to drastically reduce pollution levels in Beijing, which was once among the most polluted cities in the world. Ahead of elections to the Delhi Assembly, there is politicisation of the pollution debate with the parties finger-pointing at each other. While Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal blamed stubble-burning by paddy farmers in Punjab and Haryana for the spike in air pollution, Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar chided the Kejriwal government for not providing Rs 3,500 crore for the Eastern Peripheral Expressway, which would have eased vehicular overload in Delhi. And, the Congress attacked both AAP and the BJP for the mess.

It is unfortunate that a public health issue that requires bipartisan collaboration is now caught in polarised politics. The impending election in Delhi has further muddied the debate. Farm fires in Punjab and Haryana are the primary culprit, accounting for nearly 44% of the city’s air pollution. The solution lies in nudging the farmers in these two States to shift from paddy cultivation to alternative commercial crops like maize and corn and vegetable and fruits. Since paddy is a water-intensive crop, groundwater level has been depleting in both the States at an alarming rate. Even Punjab has conceded that stubble-burning is part of the problem and sought Central assistance to find a permanent solution in consultation with Delhi and Haryana. A joint study by IIT-Delhi, the University of California and the University of Illinois has found that air pollution in Delhi and the National Capital Region has two distinct peak waves — one during late October and early November, and another during late December and early January. Any strategy to fight pollution must come through a process of consensus involving the Centre and State governments. In order to minimise vehicle emissions, which accounts for 28% of Delhi’s air pollution, the government needs to put a robust public transport system in place.

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