Delhi voters struggled to breathe clean air mere months ago, don't see air pollution as election issue
Sustainable moves towards tackling air pollution require policy discussions that don't just feature air pollution in isolation.
by Bhasker Tripathi, Disha Shetty
Ashok Chauhan, 60, runs a jewellery showroom in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar and represents a demography of people who were born in Delhi and have lived here their entire lives. Even though Delhi’s toxic air led to his two-year-old granddaughter and elderly parents in their 80s relying on nebulisers to breathe as recently as November 2019, air pollution will not be the deciding factor for his vote. Delhi’s lethal air is not even among the top three issues to decide his vote come February 8, 2020, when the union territory and the capital of India goes to the polls.
Corruption in the municipal corporation, uneven development in parts of Delhi, the economy as well as the law and order situation are some of the most important issues for Chauhan.
Delhi — which faced toxic levels of air pollution this winter, especially in the first half of November 2019 — topped the list of most polluted cities in the world that month. Chauhan’s granddaughter and parents struggled to breathe and, as we said, needed nebulisers. Thousands others flooded the out-patient departments (as has been reported here and here) across the city, complaining of respiratory issues.
Yet, the dozen Delhi-residents IndiaSpend spoke with said they are less likely to vote on the issue of air pollution. Water, electricity, roads, sanitation and houses emerged as key issues on which they will cast their vote.
This is in contrast to November 2019 when Delhi was choking due to air which was 24-times worse quality than the World Health Organization’s safe air standards. Air pollution was on top of the voters’ mind, found a survey of 2,298 Delhi voters. Nearly 88% of those polled across 115 locations in the capital by the Lokniti programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) called air pollution a "very serious" problem, in results published in the Indian Express.
The survey found that 45% of the voters said they would vote based on the issue of air pollution. Unemployment (12%), water issues (7%) and poor sanitation (5%) were other issues on the voters’ minds. But this appears to have changed since.
The demand for clean air needs to become a strong political movement for governments to act on addressing it, examples from around the world have shown, as we further explain.
Cleaning up the country’s toxic air will improve public health, as clean air alone will increase Delhi residents’ average life expectancy by six to 10 years. Emerging research has linked air pollution with infertility, birth complications and stillbirths, as IndiaSpend reported on 27 January 2019.
"While most political parties are discussing the issue of air pollution, few have come up with concrete plans on ways to reduce the air pollution," said Chandra Bhushan, president and CEO of the International Forum for Environment, Sustainability and Technology (iFOREST).
Meanwhile, citizens’ groups have made their demands clear.
Air pollution: A key issue for citizens’ group
In anticipation of the declaration of Delhi election dates, the apex body of Delhi’s residential welfare associations called United Residents Joint Action (URJA) laid down a green manifesto for the candidates seeking their votes.
Reduction of air pollution by 65% before 2025 and a public transportation system that caters to at least 80% of the population were the major demands in its green manifesto.
The National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) launched in January 2019 targets a 20-30% reduction in air pollution by 2024 in 102 polluted cities of India, including Delhi. Around Rs 280 crore has been disbursed to 28 cities, according to data from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and RTI applications filed by Carbon Copy — a climate and energy news aggregator site. Delhi has not made it to the list so far.
Currently, about half of Delhi’s population relies on public transport and the share is declining as fares rise. The Delhi government has made the metro and government-run bus travel in the state free for women. However, of the 4.4 million people who use government-run bus services in Delhi, 34% are women. This makes their demand for better public transport more relevant.
Mobilising Delhi residents against air pollution
URJA aims to mobilise people at the grassroots into action. “Instead of a top-down approach we [citizens’ groups] are pushing for a bottom-up approach where suggestions will come from the ward levels as a blanket policy does not work for all neighbourhoods,” said Atul Goyal, president of URJA.
The sources of air pollution are different in different wards of Delhi, Goyal said. URJA hopes to collect suggestions from the ward level so mitigation can be decentralised. Through a campaign, URJA has collected more than 10,000 signatures from across the city in support of their green manifesto.
“All parties have appreciated our manifesto. We are waiting to see their manifestos now,” said Goyal adding that there is no hiding from the fact that pollution is a top agenda for Delhi’s 2020 elections.
Air pollution in AAP’s manifesto
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the ruling party in Delhi, has already made air pollution a part of the ‘guarantee card’ that incumbent Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has promised Delhi voters.
दिल्ली की जनता को अगले पांच साल के लिए मेरी दस गारंटी। pic.twitter.com/vwGypKCH70
— Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) January 19, 2020
The 10 promises in Kejriwal’s ‘guarantee card’ include reducing air pollution and achieving clean air by planting 20 million trees, providing clean water, solid waste management and increasing public transportation in the city.
In December 2019, Kejriwal’s government rolled out a plan to boost electric vehicles (EVs) in the national capital to reduce its toxic air pollution by converting about 25% of the city's vehicles into EVs.
“More states are likely to make EVs a part of their five-year plans as an effective way to reduce vehicular pollution,” said Vibhuti Garg, energy economist at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), suggesting Kejriwal’s policy move could set a precedent.
There is a need for a multi-pronged approach which will address all key sectors relevant for combating air pollution, and leads to action at the national, state and local levels, said Pallavi Pant, staff scientist at the Health Effects Institute (HEI), Boston, USA.
"For any policy (or a set of policies), it is also critical that enough time and resources (including technical facilities, budgetary support to hire manpower etc.) are allocated towards implementation (e.g. empowering local municipal departments or state pollution control boards)."
Also, it is important to treat air pollution as a concern within other major policy discussions such that we are not discussing the issue of air pollution in isolation, she added.
What's polluting Delhi, and steps taken so far
So far, in Delhi, it has been established that air pollution is a year-round problem with the level of pollution remaining three times higher than the national standard. To reduce its air pollution, the city will have to address the pollution at the source to bring down the annual concentration significantly, IndiaSpend reported on November 10, 2019.
There are many estimates for identifying air pollution sources in Delhi but an April 2019 analysis by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), a Delhi-based think-tank, combines these estimates.
Transportation or traffic is the largest source of air pollution in Delhi, contributing 18-39% to the city’s pollution, according to the CEEW analysis.
Road dust is the second-largest source of air pollution in Delhi (18-38%), followed by industries (2-29%). Power plants, which have missed their second extended deadline for curbing air pollution in December 2019, having first missed it in December 2017--contribute about 3-11% of Delhi’s pollution. The fifth-largest source is construction (8%).
What Causes Delhi’s Air Pollution?
CAP entails long-term measures to reduce air pollution, including traffic management, use of cleaner fuels and increased electrification of vehicles. GRAP, on the other hand, kicks in when pollution in the city crosses hazardous levels and includes emergency measures to cut pollution--ban on garbage burning and entry of trucks into the city and the closure of power plants, brick kilns and stone crushers.
The AAP government in Delhi also introduced the Odd-Even scheme--odd- or even-numbered private cars would be allowed to run on alternate days--which has been enforced in the city when the pollution level goes up. But studies have shown that the scheme has not been successful, IndiaSpend reported here and here.
Now, Delhi is experimenting with smog towers, a method contested by experts, to reduce air pollution.
Delhi’s tryst with smog towers
As the new year began, Delhi’s first smog tower, 20-feet high and fitted with exhaust fans, began to suck in polluted air in the Lajpat Nagar locality. The tower can reportedly remove PM 2.5 and PM 10 pollutants from the air.
PM 10 and 2.5 are fine particulate matter about six times and 30 times finer than human hair, respectively. These particles can be inhaled deep into the lungs, causing heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer and respiratory diseases, and are known to pose the greatest risk to human health.
Authorities in China's capital Beijing have been trying out these smog towers — ranging from 20 metres to 100 metres in height and publicised as the “world’s biggest” with some success. Experts, however, doubt their efficacy (Read here, here and here).
As per the claims, smog tower at Lajpat Nagar can clean the air in an area of up to 750 metres’ radius, an area of approximately 1.7 square km--equivalent to four times the size of Delhi’s Lodhi Garden--but there are no data available to verify the efficiency. Experts, however, do not believe this technology to be more effective.
There is no substitute for reducing emissions at the sources of pollution. Smog towers and other such attempts at improving outdoor air quality through filtration will have negligible impact on air quality given the size of the airshed, Santosh Harish, fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), a Delhi-based think-tank, told IndiaSpend.
“These [attempts like smog towers] do more harm than good by diverting the government's focus and resources from the systematic mitigation measures needed,” Harish said, adding that waste of the money is only a part of the problem, it is also about how the government frames the solutions.
How cities world over are tackling air pollution
A clear takeaway from cities around the world that brought down air pollution is that while citizen movements start a conversation, the government has to act for real change to happen. France’s capital Paris has responded to air pollution by banning cars in many historic neighbourhoods over weekends. In Finland’s capital Helsinki, the government is improving the public transport system to do away with the need to own a car. UK’s capital London charges drivers of older, more polluting vehicles a fine.
Norway’s capital Oslo reduced its air pollution by pushing people towards electric vehicles, making it expensive to use petrol and diesel vehicles, and improving bicycle lanes, buses and a subway system.
Beijing reduced air pollution by deploying more EVs, moving the polluting industries and power plants out of cities and enforcing strict emissions standards. Households were provided natural gas or electricity connections to remove use of coal for heating.
One example that has immediate takeaways for Delhi’s GRAP is Beijing which relies on a similar emergency response action plan. But Beijing’s action plan is preventive compared to Delhi’s, which is reactionary. This means that Beijing takes steps for dust control, advises against outdoor activities and restricts transport services based on forecasts of air pollution peak. Delhi, on the other hand, takes steps under GRAP only after air pollution peaks for two consecutive days.
Yet, in all these examples, one thing that has remained common in pushing all the cities and countries to take steps to fight air pollution is peoples’ demand for clean air.
What Delhi voters think about air pollution
“The tower makes so much noise,” said Ashok Chauhan, whose jewellery showroom is located in front of the smog tower in the central market area of Lajpat Nagar. “What can this single tower achieve when pollution is coming from all directions? The entire city is facing foul air.”
For residents we spoke to, air pollution is just a short-term discomfort, bothersome only during the winter months. This perception is inaccurate: Air pollution in Delhi is higher than standards all through the year, as we mentioned earlier.
“Stubble burning in Haryana and Punjab between October and December makes the air in Delhi so toxic in winters every year,” said Subba Rao (58), a government employee and a resident of Krishna Nagar in south Delhi, pointing to a perception held by most residents IndiaSpend spoke to.
Even Chief Minister Kejriwal had blamed stubble burning in adjacent Haryana and Punjab for the spike in pollution. Stubble burning is an annual practice where hundreds of thousands of farmers burn crop residue after paddy harvest to quickly clear their fields to prepare them for winter sowing.
However, the contribution of stubble burning to Delhi’s air pollution was never more than 50% this season, until 5 November 2019. The maximum contribution of stubble burning was recorded on 31 October 2019, at 44%. Delhi’s air pollution comes from its own sources, IndiaSpend reported on 10 November 2019.
“During winter the air pollution becomes visible due to smog, so people in Delhi talk about it, the media talks about it, but the concerns soon disappear as the air clears,” Rao said. “This is why air pollution is not very relevant for elections,” he added.
“We don’t necessarily see the pollution in the air unless it is extremely high. It is not as visible, and that’s certainly part of the problem,” said Pallavi Pant of Health Effects Institute (HEI).
An analysis of the news and social media posts over a three-year period showed poor public understanding of the major causes and the solutions for air pollution, according to a March 2019 study titled 'Hazy Perceptions', by Vital Strategies, a global health advocacy group. The study examined 500,000 news and social media posts over three years to 2018 in 11 countries from South and Southeast Asia, including India, to gauge public understanding of air pollution.
News and social media posts largely mention short-term health impacts such as coughing or itchy eyes, far more than health threats caused by chronic exposure, such as cancer, the study found. Public discussions about solutions tend to focus on short-term remedies, such as wearing a mask. The conversation is driven by seasonal variations in air quality.
“For people like us, water, house, and daily wages are issues that we truly care for,” said Raju Kumar (38), a fruit vendor from Nehru Nagar, Delhi. Kumar moved to Delhi 17 years ago in search of a job and has been living in the capital ever since.
For him, air pollution is not even a discussion in his daily life, although, when the air pollution spikes in the city, his eyes burn and he has a stuffy nose. “Every time I sneeze, it feels like dust is coming out of my nose,” he said.
Experts say the conversation around air pollution is still limited to the middle and upper classes of society.
“Most of the writing around air pollution happens in the English media which is why you don’t see the working classes talking about the issue post the winter months,” said Bhushan of (iFOREST), explaining why it is not an election issue. The current situation in India is a win-win for policy makers, should they choose to act, as acting on air pollution could reduce carbon emissions and hence help in climate change mitigation, he added. “It should be a policy maker’s delight.”
Meanwhile, residents’ groups appear to hold the government’s feet to the fire. “Whether they are ruling or in opposition, all political leaders should be on one page on this issue [air pollution],” said Goyal of URJA. “For any political party to come to power in the national capital for the next five years, they have to be committed to their promise and execution of these plans. Citizens are no longer looking for empty promises.”
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