Seeking Solutions For Delhi Smog

Image – Rajesh Pamnani via Flickr

The smog is back in Delhi right on dot with the arrival of winter. But this time, the effect is much more magnified with the national capital is facing the worst smog in 17 years. No doubt, the Delhi government issued health alerts and closed down schools to keep children indoors, but this health emergency could worsen due to peaking air pollution.

Experiments in curbing air pollution in Delhi has a long history; a debatable history that traverses across a range of issues that touch agricultural practices in surrounding villages and the ever-expanding real estate development in the NCR region.

Delhi is surrounded by hills of Haryana towards Faridabad and the plains of the Yamuna. There are many occasions when there is no natural breeze and the city gets choked. Since these hills are totally barren stripped of their forests due to incessant development, their ability to act like natural carbon sinks is now destroyed. Forest are cleared, trees are ruthlessly cut down for roads or for agricultural purposes.

Once the smog envelopes the city, the usual blame game begins. But what are the main causes for the dense smog that envelops Delhi every year… and can we work toward reducing their negative effect and finding solutions to Delhi smog?

Winter Warming

Image – Bernard l Hermite

During winters, the usage of air conditioning is negligible, which allows for some relaxation in power generation. However, as the cold climate tightens its grip, there is a steady increase in the energy consumption for air heaters. Air pollution levels are further aggravated by the burning of twigs and garbage and even rubber tires by poor people who cannot afford heaters. The net result almost reaches similar levels in totality if not a slight difference. Shutting down of a power plant in no way can deflect the core issue of the increase in particulate matter.

Possible Solutions

Solar powered heaters with battery backup can be provided to urban poor and lower income groups as a CSR initiative by corporate companies or through government sponsorship in order to limit the burning of waste and other organic matter. Similarly, high capacity solar heaters can be installed in public places such as railway stations and market areas to help combat the cold.

Farm Burning & Landfill Fires

Image – CIAT

Burning crop waste is a common practice among farmers to clear their fields after the harvest. Efforts by neighboring agricultural states to curb the practice have met with little success, since the state governments do not care about urban pollution in Delhi. On the other hand, Delhi authorities have acknowledged lapses at the city’s three enormous landfills, where decomposing garbage produces methane gas that frequently catches fire.

Possible Solutions

There is an urgent need to educate farmers to prevent crop burning since a ban cannot be implemented across remote villages. Farmers need to understand that crop waste provides compost material for holding moisture and encouraging microbial growth. This decaying matter can also prevent soil erosion during summer winds and monsoon rains. Farmers need to be educated that decayed organic matter has much more nutrients as compared to burnt ash. Meanwhile, the Delhi government has to take major steps to reduce the ever-expanding landfills in the city outskirts. There is an urgent need to properly manage garbage dumps to limit accidental fires and extraction and closure of dumps near the city. Segregation of waste has to be done at home to prevent recyclable dry waste mixing with organic waste.

Vehicular Exhaust

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Remember how the odd-even rule was rolled out in Delhi during winter last year… it is now clear that this idea of reducing air pollution and road congestion has not worked. Actually older vehicles are the ones that cause maximum pollution and the government estimates there are 3 million cars in the city that are more than 15 years old. Further, commercial vehicles that are passing through the city to travel elsewhere are aggravating the situation.

Possible Solutions

There is an urgent need to check for pollution certificates and the age of vehicles. Government can provide incentives to scrap or exchange old vehicles that do not comply with Bharat Stage IV emission limits. This scheme can be modeled after the ‘Cash-for-Clunkers’ schemes that were introduced in developed countries like the UK, US, Germany, etc. Under the scheme, the government buys up older, polluting vehicles and scraps them. If done properly, this scheme can stimulate the economy, improve the environment by reducing gas consumption and improve road safety.

Further, there is a need to look at alternative fuels such as CNG or electric vehicles. Increase discounts in need to be given for promoting a two-car system: electric vehicles for short distances and petroleum cars for longer distances. There should be restriction on the sale of diesel vehicles. Similarly, there is a need to provide an alternate route around Delhi for all interstate transport and commercial vehicles that want bypass the city.

Ban on Crackers

Image – Ishanz

This year’s smog was particularly aggravated by fire cracker busting during Diwali. This menace needs to be controlled strictly since fire crackers not only cause air pollution, but also inject toxic chemicals into the air. So there is a drastic need to ban fire crackers and tire-burning. Similarly, there is a need to relocate all highly polluting industries to regions on the outskirts of NCR.

So it is evident there are many solutions for Delhi smog that can be implemented. Since no one solution can drastically bring about a change, the government needs to think holistically and integrate a bunch of solutions.

Suhail Chaturvedi
Suhail Chaturvedi is a sustainability professional and advisor for CSR projects design and implementation. He has completed his Masters in Sustainable Development from TERI University, New Delhi.