Pollution levels in the national capital reached a new high on Thursday, according to the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR). Despite scattered showers, there was no let-up in the amount of suspended particulate matter in the capital’s air, with several areas recording “very poor” quality on a day the pollution is expected to reach its “peak”. Weather stations set up by SAFAR in densely populated urban areas such as Delhi University, Pitampura, and Indira Gandhi International airport, as well as areas in relatively isolated zones, showed an extremely high level of pollutants. By Thursday afternoon, the quantity of both fine particulate matter (PM 2.5 and PM10), that can penetrate deep into the lungs, had reached alarming levels. Areas in and around Delhi University had PM 2.5 and PM 10 levels at 357 and 301 microgram per cubic metre respectively. Around the same time, Northwest Delhi’s Pitampura had reported PM 2.5 at 302 micrograms per cubic metre and PM 10 at 271. The readings at Dhirpur, in the same order, were 325 and 340 respectively. Such figures are way beyond the safe limits of 60 micrograms per cubic meter for PM 2.5 and 100 for PM 10, according to the World Health Organization. Senior officials at the Indian Meteorological Department further warned citizens that intermittent showers on Thursday were not enough to disperse the fine particulate matter. Moreover, the advantage gained in the next few days due to favorable weather condition could be lost to the impending spike in the pollution levels during Diwali. For the past few days, the national capital has been engulfed in a thick haze. Very high levels of suspended particulate matters have kept the air quality rather “poor”. Incidentally, the first major rise in pollution level was witnessed on October 31. Meanwhile, the Delhi government on Wednesday sought the Centre’s intervention in directing the Punjab and Haryana governments to check crop burning in their respective states, one of the major factors leading to smog in the capital. Suffice to say, crop burning is only symptomatic of a larger malaise. The issues pertaining to Delhi’s poor air quality run much deeper and reflect failures at various levels of administration. Suffice to say, farmers are clearly disregarding a ban on the use of fires to clear straw and waste crop from their fields. It is amply clear that state authorities in both Punjab and Haryana have been unable to implement basic environmental norms. The failure is so gross that the Delhi government is forced to approach the courts for relief.
Just to provide some context, on Wednesday morning PM 2.5 level near the Parliament was 27 times the safe limit. Reports indicate that PM 2.5 level near the Parliament reached 675 micrograms per cubic meter of air, which wildly exceeded the highest levels measured this year in Singapore. In October, Singapore touched 471, as the disastrous plantation fires in Indonesia resulted in some of the worst air quality the city-state has seen. Last month, India submitted a document, which outlined its approach to tackling emissions ahead of the United Nations climate change conference in December. India pledged to reduce its rate of carbon emissions relative to GDP (a metric known as carbon intensity) by 33 to 35 per cent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. Moreover, the current ruling dispensation at the Centre has set ambitious targets for the proliferation of renewable sources of energy, primarily solar. The document stipulated that India would also produce 40 per cent of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030. Although such figures seem ambitious, India must abide by them. In 2013, the World Bank estimated that the annual cost of environmental degradation in India stood at Rs 3.75 trillion. For an emerging economy, India cannot afford to take these losses. Question marks, however, remain whether India possesses the regulatory capacity to mitigate these losses. Let’s just take a look at air pollution. One of the major contributors to air pollution in India is vehicular fumes. In a 2013 report, the Centre Pollution Control Board reported that certain centres conducting checks for emissions had the fake or defective software. Poor monitoring and rule enforcement across India is a consequence of understaffed regional environment departments across various levels of administration, starting at the Centre. A Parliamentary committee report submitted in April confirmed the same. Last month, the Supreme Court (SC) had imposed an “Environment Compensation Charge” (ECC) of Rs 700 and Rs 1,300 on commercial vehicles entering Delhi, in addition to the toll tax. Beginning November 1 for four months on a trial basis, this initiative was an attempt to check the notoriously high pollution levels in the city. On the day of commencement, however, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation’s toll contractor was unable to collect the additional levy at toll booths in Delhi. The toll contractor was unequivocal in stating that such a tax collection was an “impossible task” in light of its staff’s field experience or the lack thereof. Once again, the cocktail of a poor regulatory structure and lax enforcement of rules have come to haunt Delhi’s bid to reduce pollution levels. The challenge before Delhi and the rest of India are massive. It’s time we started to act.