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Breathing fresh air into the NCR’s pollution control


  • Chief Justice of India asked the Government as a ‘layman’ the question that haunts the Capital, that is, why does pollution continue to smother Delhi despite orders from Supreme Court, action from Government and lawyers arguing so much.
  • The court gave the Government 24 hours to find a way or make way for the Supreme Court to act.
  • The National Green Tribunal (NGT) had begun the process of taking a new look at the menace of air pollution in Delhi-NCR by asking the Government to list its causes.


GS-III: Environment and Ecology (Environmental Pollution, Pollution Control Measures, Conservation of Environment and Ecology), GS-II: Governance (Government Policies and Interventions)

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. India’s Air Pollution Crisis put into perspective
  2. About the changes in Delhi’s Air quality
  3. Causes of air pollution in Delhi and Adjoining regions
  4. Measures to control Air Pollution in Delhi and adjoining regions
  5. Lessons from Beijing

India’s Air Pollution Crisis put into perspective

  1. India has 37 of the world’s 50 most polluted cities, despite its air quality standards being laxer.
  2. India’s standards for PM2.5 and PM10 are 60 and 100 µg/m3 respectively (over 24 hours), while the WHO’s new standards are 15 and 45 µg/m3 (over 24 hours).
  3. India’s air pollution-influenced mortality rates are among the worst – the Global Burden of Disease estimates that India lost 1.67 million lives (Uttar Pradesh had the biggest share followed by Maharashtra and Rajasthan) in 2019 directly as a result of breathing polluted air, or because of pre-existing conditions exacerbated by air pollution.
  4. The average life expectancy in Delhi is 6.4 years lower than the national average of 69.4, and the number is starting to fall for even coastal cities like Mumbai and Chennai.

The Serious threats

  • The health impacts of PM2.5 exposure now include lung cancer, cerebrovascular disease, ischaemic heart disease and acute lower respiratory illness, besides exacerbating ailments like depression.
  • Exposure to ozone has been linked to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • Prolonged exposure to air pollutants affects newborns and babies still in the womb.
  • Simply put, air pollution is a threat to generations even before they are born.

About the changes in Delhi’s Air quality

  • Delhi’s air typically worsens in October-November and improves by March-April every year due to weather amongst other reasons.
  • Current weather conditions are not unfavourable, unlike in winter. Hence, apart from local emissions, the deterioration in air quality is being attributed to an increase in fire counts, mostly due to burning of wheat crop stubble in northern India.
  • Fires were also spotted Lahore, Gujranwala and Hafizabad in Pakistan which can contribute to deterioration of air quality.
  • Deteriorating air quality is worrying amid an increasing number of novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and deaths. Medical experts have, from time to time, raised concerns about how high pollution levels can worsen the situation and aggravate respiratory conditions of the public.
  • According to a report by CPCB, an increase of 258% to 335% has been observed in the concentration of PM10 in Delhi since 2009.
  • Delhi was the most polluted capital city in the world in 2020 for the third consecutive year, according to a report by a Swiss group (released in March 2021) that ranked cities based on their air quality measured in terms of the levels of ultrafine particulate matter (PM 2.5).

Causes of air pollution in Delhi and Adjoining regions

  • Increasing population and related developmental activities at the cost of environmental damage.
  • The development of the region has largely been unplanned and often, industrial units that spew harmful chemicals into the atmosphere are located in residential and commercial areas and not designated areas.
  • Increased vehicular traffic (which has not come down despite the Delhi metro) and the consequent rise in air and noise pollution.
  • Almost 8,000 m tonnes of solid waste is being generated in Delhi (National Environmental Engineering Research Institute) every day, however, the authorities manage to clear only about 5000 – 5500 m tonnes of waste daily. This adds to the garbage piling up. This is not counting the hazardous and non-hazardous waste from industries.
  • There is a rather high dependence on fossil fuels, whose burning causes a lot of emission of harmful gases into the atmosphere.
  • Large scale construction activities lead to increased dust pollution, which leads to around 56% of PM10 and the PM2.5 load.
  • The landlocked geography of Delhi also causes more air pollution as compared to other cities. The north-westerly winds coming from Rajasthan, sometimes Pakistan and Afghanistan bring in the dust to the region. The Himalayas obstruct the escape route of the air. This causes the dust and pollutants to settle in the region. This is more prominent during the winters because of low-level inversion (upward movement of air from the layers below is stopped). It is because of this landlocked geography of Delhi that it faces greater pollution when compared to the coastal city of Chennai (where despite high automobile population, has the sea breeze which provides an effective entry and exit for dispersing pollutants).
  • Stubble burning also contributes to the air pollution in the region. During the winter months, the large scale stubble burning practised in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan cause a thick blanket of smog to cover Delhi-NCR. According to a study, the burning of crop residue released about 149 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, more than 9 million tonnes of carbon monoxide, 0.25 million tonnes of oxides of sulphur (SOX), 1.28 million tonnes of particulate matter (PM) and 0.07 million tonnes of black carbon. As evident, it contributes to a lot of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Firecrackers, although not the top reason for air pollution, also contributes to the problem.

Measures to control Air Pollution in Delhi and adjoining regions

  1. The Ministry of Environment, Climate Change and Forests notified the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) in 2017. These are institutionalised measures to be taken only when the air quality in Delhi NCR deteriorates beyond a certain threshold. It is only to be implemented in emergency situations.
  2. In October 2020, the Supreme Court-appointed a one-man committee, Justice Lokur Committee, to monitor and curb the occurrences of stubble burning in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.
  3. Construction & demolition (C&D) waste management rules have been notified which mandate the segregation of C&D waste into various categories for safe disposal and further processing.
  4. Red Light On, Gaadi Off campaign was an initiative by the Delhi Government that ran in Oct-Nov 2020 under which commuters driving vehicles were urged to switch off their vehicle engines while waiting for the green light at traffic lights.
  5. The Odd-even rule was introduced by the Delhi Government according to which vehicles with odd and even registration numbers would ply on the road on alternate days. This was particularly aimed at reducing smog in the region.
  6. The state government of Delhi also introduced a policy to preserve and plant trees in a bid to increase the green cover and have carbon sinks.
  7. Anti-smog guns and smog towers are installed and used in the city.
  8. Prevention of stubble burning is a key component of reducing air pollution in the Delhi NCR area. A subsidy is provided to the farmers for procuring the Turbo Happy Seeder, which is a machine fitted on tractors that can cut and uproot stubble and eliminates the need to burn stubble.
  9. Mass Rapid Transport System (MRTS) is being built as a means to provide citizens with non-polluting alternative sources of transportation.
  1. Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Bill, 2021
    • The Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Bill, 2021 provides for the constitution of a Commission for better co-ordination, research, identification, and resolution of problems related to air quality in the National Capital Region (NCR) and adjoining areas.
    • Adjoining areas have been defined as areas in Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, adjoining the National Capital Territory of Delhi and NCR, where any source of pollution may cause adverse impact on air quality in the NCR.
    • Sources of air pollution particularly in the NCR consist of a variety of factors which are beyond the local limits. Therefore, a special focus is required on all sources of air pollution which are associated with different economic sectors, including power, agriculture, transport, industry, residential and construction.
    • Since air pollution is not a localised phenomenon, the effect is felt in areas even far away from the source, thus creating the need for regional-level initiatives through inter-State and inter-city coordination in addition to multi-sectorial synchronisation.
    • The Bill has taken into consideration the concerns of the farmers following several rounds of negotiations, after they had raised concerns of stiff penalties and possible jail terms for stubble burning.

Lessons from Beijing

The UN Environment Programme’s review of Beijing’s control of air pollution provides useful lessons for policymakers. The population size of both cities, Beijing and Delhi, is comparable.

  • The need is to deal with urban air pollution in three stages. It starts with end-of-pipe air pollution control gradually moving to integrated measures targeting primary pollutants (SO2, NO2, PM10, and CO), with the Government playing the main role. Later, secondary pollutants, or particulate matter leading to smog, primarily PM2.5, become the main focus for control.
  • In Beijing what really made a difference was not shutting down polluting units, restricting car ownership and travel, and improved fuel standards but the approach to urbanisation. Beijing provides more space for public transport and mixed land use spatial planning minimising travel.
  • In Beijing, policy focus gradually changed from gasoline vehicle emissions to heavy-duty diesel vehicle emissions. Phasing out older vehicles made the most significant contribution. Beijing plans to have 48 lakh charging points by 2022 to push the use of electric vehicles.
  • Innovative implementation steps were instituted in Beijing, like economic incentives were tailored for the specific problem. Municipal environmental enforcement teams do specific inspections and hotspot grid supervision based on a detailed emission inventory for each source.

-Source: The Hindu

June 2024