Environment Pollution Control Authority Chairman Bhure Lal’s remarks on Tuesday were dramatic. “Let us hope the Delhi air pollution situation doesn’t deteriorate or else we will have to stop plying of private vehicles, only public transport will be used,” Lal said. Suggesting the banning of all private vehicles – counting at least 70 lakh cars and two-wheelers in the capital – might seem like a drastic step. But so is Delhi’s pollution situation.
With depressing reliability, the air quality in the week leading up to Diwali dropped to medically debilitating levels. According to data from the Central Pollution Control Board, 18 pollution monitoring stations recorded an Air Quality Index above 400 on Tuesday. “Avoid all physical activity outdoors,” said the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research or SAFAR, which monitors pollution levels in major cities. “If the room has windows, close them.”
At this point, some of this seems routine for Delhi and indeed many North Indian cities as well as those in the same belt across the border in Pakistan. But routine does not make it “normal”. This level of pollution is extraordinarily dangerous. The World Health Organisation believes outdoor pollution led to the death of at least 67,000 children under the age of five in 2016 alone. Various studies have suggested that the air quality outside is shaving more than five years off the lives of people who have to breathe it in. And, while SAFAR may advise everyone to avoid all physical activity outdoors, that is simply not an option for a huge number of people, whose livelihoods might depend on working despite the pollution.
Of course, banning all private vehicles may not achieve what is needed. The move might be impossible to enforce, the public transport system may not be equipped to handle those numbers and there is a debate over how much private vehicles contribute to pollution especially in times like this. But those responses tell us two things: One, Delhi clearly has not done enough to shore up its public transport system, which in the long run is a key way to combat pollution. Two, imagine living in a city where even banning all private cars will not be enough to handle pollution. That alone should provide an idea of the scale of the public health calamity that is Delhi’s pollution.
Remarkably, pollution masks are still a rarity in the capital, even among those who can afford them. Governments and private sector companies that require people to work outside do not seem to consider it necessary to provide them with masks or even mandate their use. Initiatives to deal with particulate matter pollution seem to only be remembered two weeks before Diwali, or rely on questionable technologies. Sure, much of the blame may lie beyond the city’s borders, but it is clear that the city and its residents still take the situation far too casually. Maybe only the threat of banning private vehicles or other similarly drastic steps will spur Delhi into action that goes beyond simply figuring out whom to blame for the disastrous air that the city now considers ordinary.