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Air Pollution in India especially Delhi, causes, challenges and what is the way out?

Published: 4th Nov, 2019

North India is reeling under a wave of severe air pollution accompanied with smog as at least 12 cities regularly recording an Air Quality Index (AQI) of 400 and above, falling in the severe category.



North India is reeling under a wave of severe air pollution accompanied with smog as at least 12 cities regularly recording an Air Quality Index (AQI) of 400 and above, falling in the severe category.


  • India is among the most polluted countries, with most places in the country exceeding WHO defined safe air quality standards multiple times over. Nearly half of the worst 50 polluted cities in the world are in India.
  • The technological advancement and speedy development since India’s Independence has come at a great environmental cost. According to the global Environment Performance Index (EPI) 2018, India is ranked at 177 with an EPI of 30.57.
  • An estimated 1.2 million deaths in India are caused by air pollution, both outdoors and in households, which is now the second-most serious risk factor for public health in the country after malnutrition, contributing to 6.4 per cent of all healthy years of life lost in 2016.
  • It is disheartening to hear that Delhi, the national capital of the country, is being tagged as one of the most heavily polluted capital cities in the world. It is the world’s worst city in terms of air pollution, with an unhealthy air quality index for the majority of the year.


Causes of sever air pollution in Delhi

  • Growing population of the city -The pressure and haphazard growth of the population is deteriorating the environment.
  • There has been highly haphazard and unplanned development of industries and factor Studies have revealed that only about 20% of the industrial units are set up in the approved industrial areas whereas the rest of them are in residential and commercial areas.
  • There has been a huge rise in the vehicular population, despite the metro railways, aggravating traffic congestion and increasing air and noise pollution. It has also been reported that the number of vehicles plying on the roads of Delhi is more than that of the three metropolitan cities of Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai taken together.
  • There has also been an ever-increasing number of diesel vehicles plying on the roads, which are largely responsible for the air pollution.
  • It has been reported by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) that everyday almost 8,000 m tonnes of solid waste is being generated in Delhi. Plus, we also have the industrial hazardous and non-hazardous waste. On an average, every day, the MCDs and the NDMC manage to clear about 5,000-5,500 m tonnes of garbage. This results in the accumulation of more and more garbage in the city.
  • There has been no proper technology or methods to treat solid, liquid, waste water, industrial and hospital wastes in the city.
  • There has been too much dependence on fossil fuels like coal-fired power plants, improper use of energy in buildings and the excessive use of biomass for cooking and heating, etc.

Major reasons for extremely poor Delhi air in winters

  • Burning of Crop Stubble – Burning of crop residue by farmers in Northern states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh is considered as the prime reason for a spike in air pollution during the winter months in Delhi and NCR. This is a traditional practice followed by farmers in these states to prepare their fields for sowing crops after harvesting their fields.
  • Winter season - As the winter season sets in, dust particles and pollutants in the air become unable to move. Due to stagnant winds, these pollutants get locked in the air and affect weather conditions, resulting in smog.
  • Burning crackers - Despite the ban on cracker sales, firecrackers are usually a common sight every Diwali. It may not be the top reason for this smog, but it contributes to its build up.

Challenges due to Air Pollution

  • There is concrete evidence that air pollution leads to low birth-weight, tuberculosis, ischemic heart disease, cataracts, asthma and nasopharyngeal and laryngeal cancers.
  • New research has found that air pollution might also affect cognitive development. PM2.5 are so small that when inhaled they can enter the bloodstream, and recent medical research indicates that it can cause the degeneration of blood-brain barriers, leading to oxidative stress, neuro-inflammation and damage of neural tissue.
  • Air pollution is linked to diseases and infections that kill around 600,000 children under five years of age per year.
  • A study even shows that about 2.2 million school children in Delhi are growing up with irreversible lung damage which they will never recover.
  • The number of premature deaths due to outdoor air pollution is projected to increase from three million people globally in 2010 to a global total of six to nine million people in 2060.
  • The number of cases of bronchitis is projected to increase substantially, going from 12 to 36 million new cases per year for children aged six to twelve and from 3.5 to 10 million cases for adults.
  • Total welfare costs of air pollution in the world is expected to increase from $3,160 billion in 2015 to $18,300 – $25,330 billion in 2060 (as per 2010 PPP exchange rates).

Government initiatives taken to control Delhi Pollution

  • There are mobile enforcement teams deployed at various locations for monitoring polluting vehicles and vehicles not having PUC certificates.
  • A Mass Rapid Transport System (MRTS) is being constructed with the aim of providing a non-polluting, useful and affordable rail-based mass rapid transit system for Delhi, integrated with other modes of transport.
  • With a view to reducing vehicular pollution, there has been a ban imposed on the plying of more than 15 years old commercial/transport vehicles, taxis and autos that run on conventional fuels, including diesel driven city buses.
  • There has also been tightening of mass emission standards for new vehicles.
  • The quality of the fuel being supplied in Delhi has been significantly improved over the years by the ban of selling leaded petrol, introduction of low sulphur diesel, reduction of sulphur and benzene content in petrol.
  • There has been regular placement of dustbins, purchase of additional front-end loaders, mechanical sweepers, dumper placers, tipper trucks, to collect and dispose of garbage.
  • The biggest positive step taken by the Delhi government was to permanently shut down the old, polluting Badarpur coal-fired power plant in the southeastern outskirts of Delhi. The plant, a major cause of the Capital Region’s air pollution, had been shut down every winter for the past three years to scale back pollution.
  • The Centre constituted the Supreme Court-empowered Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority or the EPCA, which is tasked with taking various measures to tackle air pollution in the National Capital Region.
  • Delhi government regularly comes up with emergency measures like Odd-Even formula for vehicles to control rising pollution.

Way forward

  • Alternate Solutions to Burning Crop Stubble – Farmers need to be provided alternate options. Government agencies should provide shredder machines free of cost rather than just providing subsidy. Also, farmers should be educated and made aware of the harmful effects of crop burning.
  • Adopting Renewable Solar Power and promoting Solar Rooftops – A lot of government buildings in Delhi have rooftop solar installations which is praiseworthy. This should be further encouraged not just in government buildings but across all kinds of commercial buildings in the city and suburb towns of Delhi NCR. Government can also mandate residential plots measuring above a certain size to install solar rooftops.
  • Public Transport – Improve public transport systems. Although metro has been a great success, the network is mostly concentrated in Delhi. Also, last mile connectivity and overcrowding remains an issue which prevents a lot of people from using the network. The various agencies involved in public transport infrastructure should work towards improving the efficiency of public transport networks.
  • Promote CNG as fuel – The government should encourage CNG as a fuel for private vehicles. Most of public transport buses in the capital already use CNG as primary fuel. This should be encouraged for private vehicles as well by providing subsidies and increasing the number of CNG pumps
  • Electric Vehicles and related infrastructure – There have been a thrust on electric vehicles in the past few years. The government should develop the necessary infrastructure – the most important of them being charging stations to help wide adoption of these vehicles. Subsidies should also be provided to people who want to buy electric vehicles.
  • Sprinkling of Waste Water in Construction Sites – Waste water can be used to sprinkle construction sites so that pollutants emanating from these sites can be controlled
  • Large Scale Afforestation Drives – The government should identify large tracks that can be planted with trees for green cover across the city. Also, hill ranges like the Aravallis should be preserved and they should be planted with trees.

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