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Understanding why is Delhi the most polluted capital!

Binny Yadav

Delhi most polluted capital: Delhi pollution is hardly ever out of the news. The city is notoriously associated with pollution levels crossing critical marks. Now, as per recent data Delhi was the most polluted capital in the world. Delhi in the year 2023 and the third most polluted city in India in terms of PM (Particulate Matter) 2.5 levels, according to the World Air Quality Report.

The report was prepared by IQAir, a Swiss air quality technology company. It uses data from across the world from monitoring stations of government agencies, educational institutions, and non-profit organisations, according to the report. In 2023, Delhi’s annual average PM 2.5 level was 92.7 µg/m3 — placing the Indian national capital at the top of a list of 114 capital cities in the world. This was followed by Dhaka in Bangladesh, with a PM 2.5 level of 80.2 µg/m3.

The report indeed is significant considering the hazards of pollution on overall health which ‘critically’ impacts longevity, this also throws upon several questions. Years after years, Delhi has suffered from pollution. Why can’t the government curtail the pollution and is it so difficult? Is there a lack of infrastructure, dearth of administrative support or lack of political and agencies’ will?  While pollution is a critical reality for Delhi it is also important to understand these reports and data which surface every year from various agencies.

Reports about pollution level need thorough scrutiny

Dr Mohan P George, an eminent environment scientist and ex Add. Director to Delhi Pollution Control Committee, and currently advisor to Center for Science and Environment, finds nothing shocking and new about the current report putting Delhi at the top of the most polluted capital of the world,  “We are just changing the title of the reports. Once it declared China as the most polluted country, sometimes Beijing, Dhaka and now it is Delhi”. Indeed these reports do create news and are sensational too but such data, according to him, should be evaluated by the scientific community and environment ministry.

Major cause of Delhi pollution is also its geography

While there are many factors to why Delhi’s pollution by and large remains in the news for bad air quality, much of this can be blamed for the geographical placing of Delhi, he says. According to Dr George, Delhi falls on the Indo Gangetic Plain which throughout the year brings in winds laden with the dust which if combined with the other pollutants creates air havoc for the city.

Dhaka and Lahore are the other cities which fall on the same Indo Gangetic Plane and have equally suffered from bad air quality. On the first day of the new year, 2024, Dhaka topped the list of cities worldwide with the worst air quality with an AQI score of 244 at 8:40 am. On the last day of 2023, Dhaka also topped the list with the worst air quality. So, sometimes it is Dhaka, sometimes it can be Lahore or Delhi. “ Therefore all these air quality data should also consider the local geographical conditions of India Gangetic plane besides taking into account the other pollutant factors while reaching on any conclusion”, points out Dr Geaorge.

The question is also raised on the measures for mitigating pollution level which by and large ends up in failure. “We are following actions as a practice in the process we are losing on basic science”, he says. Sprinkling of water is a very localised effort with not much respite because the culprit is a combination of factors including vehicular pollution, factory dust and the dust brought in the city through winds. Therefore merely shifting the industries and closing the construction activities will not help much till we cover the raw material completely.

We are losing out because our focus has been on the short term solutions and we hardly follow the scientific process.

Any solutions for Delhi Pollution?

“We have to develop a strict action plan,” insists Dr. George. He emphasizes the need for a single body to be responsible and accountable for managing pollution. For instance, a body such as the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) should take the lead in identifying the problem, devising an action plan, providing advice to the government, implementing the plan, and overseeing its execution. “This body should also hold accountability”.

Another measure could involve implementing both short-term and long-term strategies. These strategies might include the removal and proper disposal of dust, especially from areas where it is commonly dumped. Additionally, focusing on addressing one or two issues at a time is crucial for effective action.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air quality guidelines recommend that annual average PM 2.5 levels should not exceed 5 µg/m3.

Within the country, Begusarai in Bihar and Guwahati in Assam exhibited higher annual average PM 2.5 levels compared to Delhi. While Begusarai recorded an average of 118.9 µg/m3 in 2023, Guwahati recorded 105.4 µg/m3.

Run with bad air continues

Delhi’s air quality also worsened in 2023 compared to 2022, the report shows. In 2022, the average annual PM 2.5 concentration was 92.6 µg/m3, 10% lower than the figure recorded in 2023.
In 2023, the national capital experienced its most polluted month in November, recording a PM 2.5 level of 255.1 µg/m3. This was followed by December, which had an average PM 2.5 level of 210 µg/m3.. The city’s cleanest month was August – with an average PM 2.5 concentration of 34.8 µg/m3.

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