Delhi is holding its breath for its next government, but it might as well hold it for the next five years. With one of the world’s worst air pollution, that is getting worse by the day, Delhi is primed to act urgently on an issue that has serious public health implications. But neither of the two political parties that are predicted to steer the city’s policies for the next five years has spared any manifesto space or campaign minute to address this ballooning problem. While the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Vision Document has one throwaway line that clubs together all kinds of pollution – water, air and noise – the Aam Aadmi Party’s document makes no reference to air quality at all.

The AAP manifesto’s only indirect reference to Delhi’s air quality problem was through the public transport section, where it promises to expand bus and metro services with the aim of moving its citizens to public transport modes. In the very next section, however, it also promises multi-storeyed parking facilities in busy and congestion-prone localities, which is a self-defeating proposition because it is these very localities that have lower capacity for vehicles. While the focus on buses implies public transport, increased parking facilities incite more car ownership. None of this is tied to air quality despite close correlation.

Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director, research and advocacy, Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based environmental NGO, says:
 “The manifesto is a place where they have to express the seriousness of their intent. While the AAP is saying it will expand public transport, what is essential is the delivery mechanism. We have to give a clear plan on how they will provide space on the road for this expanded bus fleet. What is the integrated plan? Parking strategy is not just about space. It is also about stringent enforcement against illegal parking, access to other modes of transport and effective pricing. Just promising parking doesn’t solve this problem as it is also a capacity issue.”

AAP’s manifesto has a separate section for auto drivers and e-rickshaw drivers, a constituency AAP has focused on consistently, where it addresses concerns around their harassment and financial plight. But it does not address one of the critical problems these public transport drivers, weaving through Delhi’s traffic, face as one of the most vulnerable sections when it comes to the city’s worsening air pollution. Concentrations of PM 2.5 levels in Delhi auto-rickshaws are 2-10 times higher than measured in other megacities around the world, and short term peak concentrations are 6-50 times higher than ambient levels, which are already three times above acceptable levels.

The urgent need for action on air quality in Delhi and its correlation with public health has been articulated repeatedly. Delhi reigned at the top of a WHO report of 1,600 cities with hazardous air quality. A recent CSE study showed crippling amounts of PM 2.5 and PM 10 levels ‒ at times 12 times higher than the safe standard of 60 micro gram per cubic metre (PM 2.5 is considered especially hazardous because of its small size that helps it reach deeper into the lungs causing respiratory problems). Not only this, WHO has ranked outdoor air pollution fifth in mortality and seventh in health burden in India.

A recent paper in the journal Atmospheric Environment, which has tracked the evolution of on-road vehicle exhaust emissions in Delhi over a 40-year horizon (1990-2030) also has some grim news. It says that though PM emissions reduced significantly through 2012 (most reduction in emissions between 1998 and 2012 occurred as a result of vehicular emission standards, removal of lead, reduction of sulfur content, mandatory retirement of older commercial vehicles, improvement in technology and conversion of diesel and petrol run public transport vehicles to CNG), the current regime of vehicle technology, fuel standards, and high growth rate of private vehicles, is likely to nullify all the past emission reductions by the end of 2020s.

The total in-use vehicle fleet will grow three times from a total of 6.0 million in 2014 to an astounding 16.0 million in 2030. And transport is the biggest contributor to PM 2.5 and NOx levels.  Sarath Guttikunda, co-author of the paper, adjunct associate professor at IIT-Mumbai in the Centre for Climate Studies and the director of, an independent research group on urban and regional air pollution, says:
“Usage, whether in freight or personal mobility, is going up. Unless we curb that, no matter what we do, we will lose past accrued benefits.

Our equation takes three things into account – emission factor, usage and number of vehicles. Public transport or a management system that reduces congestion is essential. Even if you leapfrog to Bharat V standard (emissions and fuel standard) immediately, we will plateau at this air quality. But the idea is to improve air quality, which will happen only if we toggle all three factors.”

Politics and clean air?

Politically, however, several of these steps are risky. Guttikunda’s paper also mentions Bus Rapid Transit corridors, that don’t allow cars, as a way out. It says that if and when fully implemented, BRTs  could result in higher on-road vehicle speeds, which would in turn lead to reduction in emission rates and congestion times, leading eventually to a favourable shift from cars and motorcycles to buses.

But Delhi’s experience with its first BRT has been short-lived and bitter. Public opposition and lack of political will led to the stalling of its extension as the current corridor of six km was not extended. In fact, the only time a bus corridor became a poll issue was during the 2013 Delhi Assembly elections and that was for its removal. The Sheila Dixit government, which set it up, also decided to scrap the BRT near the end of its election campaign. Though the AAP wants to make bus transport an attractive option if it is elected this time, one of its central assurances during the last election was to dismantle the BRT in the Greater Kailash-2 constituency.

Chowdhury says:
“You need a network of BRTs so buses can move seamlessly and can be attractive as an option. But where is the big picture? BRT is an infrastructure for buses and not cars. How will these increased number of buses be accommodated on the road? The reason metro works is that it has a dedicated track.”

A survey by IIT Delhi that asked people why they didn’t take buses pointed to lack of safety, inconvenience and untimeliness, all of which need congestion free roads and more buses.

Measures such as increase in parking costs, reduction in parking area, phase-out of ageing cars or limits on licenses and car ownership/usage are politically next to impossible to sell. From phasing out private cars more than 15 years old to increasing parking costs, successive governments have shown minimal enthusiasm due to public backlash.

Guttikunda says:
“People don’t even want to pay tolls to use highways. How will they ever agree to pay a congestion pricing? Imagine barricaded roads and tax in Connaught Place (heart of New Delhi). These will not be politically desirable solutions.”

Instead, the city’s transport focus has been on increase in roads, flyovers, parking infrastructure and signal-free corridors—measures that encourage more car ownership, which only leads to more congestion and worse air. A survey by UrbanEmissions in Delhi showed that 20% of driving time is spent idling because of congestion. If that is converted to fuel consumption, it is a loss of Rs 1 crore in fuel costs per day.

But a middle path can be found, says Guttikunda, which can also work politically:
“Many people want to use bicycles but don’t because of safety. The government can make safer roads for cyclists. Also, in India, majority of the population lives close to where it works. In a city like Delhi, non-motorised transport (walking, cycling) is at 40%. Imagine if we could get it to 50%, the difference it would make.”

Will the winner of the Delhi elections pay heed?