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Hold your breath; it's unsafe

Delhi and the winter air — let’s not lose sight of this. Though dust exacerbates the problem of pollution, it is the rush of traffic that creates it

Will we in Delhi breathe easy, or easier this winter? This is our top question, as winter approaches. We know pollution sources do not change through the year; what changes in winter is the fact that cold air settles close to the ground, trapping toxins, and making us ill.

The onset of winter also comes when farmers burn stubble in their fields after the harvest of rice and before they can sow the next wheat crop. It's a deadly game of wind, ventilation and moisture. Delhi and its surrounding cities choke, not necessarily when stubble burning is at its peak, but when weather conditions are opportune to do so. This year, the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) will make it even worse as the virus attacks our airways and so does air pollution. We are doubly at risk.

This is also the season for politics — our concerns for our health and the health of our children has made air pollution an issue for leaders to respond to. But sadly, they are doing this in the worst possible way by scoring points; playing blame-game; and then, by finding a seasonal gimmicky gizmo that will distract us to believe that all is well.

Last year, it was the building of smog towers and this year it is a campaign to switch off your vehicle engines while waiting at traffic signals. What we need to understand is that the scale of the crisis requires us to not just switch off engines on red lights, but to stop all vehicular traffic and stop all fuel combustion.

This is what we saw during the lockdown: Clean air, blue skies. Because everything was shut. It will take this much to get us healthy air in winters when the weather works against us. So, let's get real. We know that permanent lockdown is not feasible. So, what we need to understand is what can be done. But I digress. I want to answer your question if this year will be better or not.

In my assessment, things are working for us this year but some factors are against us; so, it will be better, but marginally so. You should expect incremental improvements in air quality; days of severe - and emergency -level pollution should be less over the three months of winter 2020-21. This is the result of the actions governments took till last year. Vehicular pollution remains the top contributor to toxic pollutants in the air. The Union government introduced Bharat Stage (BS) VI fuel, which is somewhat cleaner than the BS-IV petrol and diesel. But the real game-changer is that it has also ramrodded industry to leapfrog to BS-VI compliant technology for vehicles.

However, in a country like India where vehicle fleets change slowly, the real impact of this is still not visible. Yet, it is a big gain. Then, it completed the two expressways that would divert heavy vehicle traffic away from the already polluted city. Also, under the Supreme Court's mandate, the Radio Frequency Identification Device (RFID) at key entry points into the city is being implemented to enforce payment of congestion tax by heavy-duty vehicles. This is a deterrent so that only those vehicles that need to enter the city do so. As a result of these two measures, traffic entering the city has reduced from 40,000 daily vehicles to some 4,000.

Then the Delhi government has taken the bold step to ban all polluting fuels, including coal in furnaces, across the city. It has incentivised the transition to piped natural gas. In the neighbouring states — part of the same airshed — the key action has been to crack down on brick-kilns, which were not using zigzag technology for improved combustion and reduced emissions.

In addition, city and municipal governments across the region have somewhat stepped up vigilance over dust sources like roads, construction sites and burning of garbage. But this work is never done here as they have found to their horror (but not surprise) that as they clean up a site, garbage and construction material gets dumped again.

But as I see it, the gains are not good enough — we need a time in winter when the air is clean; our skies are blue; and, our lungs are clear. And this year, the pandemic is working against us.

Already public transport is abysmally inadequate in our city and region. But with the fear of the virus, we are not taking the bus or the metro railway; we are jumping into private transport — vehicle sales are defying all economic slowdown indicators. This rush of traffic is a key cause of air pollution — let's not lose sight of this. Dust exacerbates the problem, but vehicles create it. So, this will work against us during the winter months.

That's why we must realise that the region needs transformational action proportionate to the scale of the crisis. When we moved to compressed natural gas (CNG), it was absolute; quick; and big. We cannot attain clean air by tinkering around with small ideas and small execution. I will discuss, once again, the actions that need to be done, now and not tomorrow, for us to secure our right to clean air. Till then, hold your breath. It's unsafe out there.dte

The writer is the Director-General of CSE and editor of Down To Earth. Views expressed are personal

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