Delhi and parts of the surrounding States of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh encounter their annual air quality inflection point. This is the time when the southwest monsoon has receded and with it, the great drafts in the upper atmosphere that normally flush out pollutants from the gamut of anthropogenic activities such as construction, driving, power generation and the burning of agricultural residue. Through the years, there have been studies commissioned and executive action initiated to study, acknowledge and address the crisis. The science is also fairly clear on the relative contribution of pollutants and the limits of corrective intervention in the face of adverse meteorology and the disruption to economic life that this can entail. The consequence of this is that the air pollution crisis has now devolved into a stalemate. The Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM), which is tasked with addressing the causes of air pollution in Delhi and the adjoining States, is now a body packed with expertise but whose powers are limited to evoking and recommending grades of measures depending on the degree of deterioration in air quality.
While the CAQM pointed out, as recently as October 31, that the daily average air quality in Delhi from January to October of this year was the best in the last six years, it elides the fact that the number of days in November when air quality becomes ‘severe’ (over 450 AQI) has remained roughly the same. Thus, in 2022, the AQI was in the severe category in the first fortnight of November for three days, the same as in 2021, 2020 and 2019. While there is greater awareness and action to curb the sources of pollution, November, which has in recent years emerged as the critical month for pollution, remains to be tamed. Incidents of stubble burning in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh this year have been roughly half that when compared to previous years, though the weeks ahead are expected to see more such activity. While the measures earlier have seen an institutionalised response to tackle air pollution, it is now time for a concerted approach to address these challenges of November. Beyond stubble burning, this means addressing the more daunting challenges of vehicular pollution and construction dust. While urban Delhi could have always blamed the distant farm fires for the pollution crisis, tackling November may mean hard measures and greater inconvenience. Bodies such as the CAQM have to assert their independent credentials and ensure greater coordination and compliance within Delhi and the surrounding States to address the challenge.