Through the smog-screen: on Delhi's air pollution


When Sri Lankan cricketers trooped out wearing pollution masks in the middle of a Test match at the Feroz Shah Kotla ground in Delhi, it heralded a new low for the city. The desolation of smog plays out every year with immaculate regularity. Anti-corruption rallies in 2011 and the brutal rape of ‘Nirbhaya’ in 2012 may have brought thousands of people out on the streets of Delhi but anti-pollution activism has largely been home-based. WhatsApp has been preferred over popular venues like Ramlila Maidan or Jantar Mantar. People have, indeed, thronged the streets, but it was either for the Delhi marathon or to watch the Test match against the Lankans. Delhi has proved time and again — either by damaging the Yamuna floodplain to host a World Culture Festival, or bursting crackers in Diwali even after a court ban on its sale — entertainment comes first.


Significant sections of recent reportage on Delhi’s air pollution have trained their guns on paddy stalk burning in Punjab and Haryana, positioning it as a key contributor to the crisis. Some have pinned the blame on the Green Revolution and the rampant use of tubewells which converted Punjab to a paddy-growing landscape. Others have pointed at the recent success of the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act, 2009. Aiming at arresting Punjab’s falling groundwater tables, it banned farmers from transplanting rice in fields before June, so that they would not pump groundwater and rely more on the monsoon rains for their water supply. This allowed a window of barely 20 days for farmers to get their fields ready for sowing wheat after harvesting paddy. It’s pretty clear that actions of farmers are often a reaction to state policy, indicating lack of choice rather than a wilful act of environmental vandalism.

An IIT report

But the same cannot be said about the denizens of Delhi. A 334-page India Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur report published in 2016 cites municipal solid waste burning and vehicular pollution as critical contributors of air pollution apart from crop residue burning. The report clearly states that if municipal solid waste burning was stopped and waste management upgraded, it would improve Delhi’s air quality by 100%. Control of vehicular pollution would do the same by 50% and stopping crop residue burning would ensure 90%. Delhi’s air remains polluted throughout the year because of municipal solid waste burning and vehicular pollution. Crop residue burning only tips the scales in favour of a catastrophe.


Delhi, a city of 18.6 million, has approximately 10 million cars on its streets, owned by only 15%-20% of its population. The recent Supreme Court approval to bring 10,000 buses on the streets of Delhi by end of next year is a welcome step, but will not stem the rising tide of private vehicle ownership. Moreover, approximately 190-246 tonnes of municipal solid waste is burnt every day in Delhi. However, Delhiites and civic authorities have both assiduously avoided segregating waste at source.

Choice-less farmers in Punjab are being asked to manage 15 million tonnes of paddy stalk sustainably. But no one is asking residents of Delhi to do the simple thing of keeping two separate waste bins at home. On the contrary, in an effort to protect themselves from a pollution crisis fuelled by their own consumption, Delhiites have tried to buy their way out of it. The sale of household air purifiers and steroidal inhalers has skyrocketed. The Delhi government is considering seeding clouds in order to get artificial rain to clean up Delhi’s air rather than inconvenience its citizenry with waste segregation measures.

The urban elite of Delhi has always succeeded in keeping attention away from their consumption.

Radical measures needed

In the first leg of Delhi’s clean air struggle almost two decades ago, the Supreme Court forced the government and the automotive industry to introduce new standards for fuel and emissions, but the successful shift to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) was restricted to auto-rickshaws and public transport buses. In the second leg, the NASA satellite map with numerous vermilion spots marking crop-burning sites has again conveniently shifted media focus away from the city to the rural hinterland. Diagnosis has been prioritised over action, and in spite of apps that give us daily updates to real-time dashboards spatially visualising our misery, there has been little tangible effort at addressing the internal contradictions of air pollution in Delhi.


In a paradox that truly defines India, farmers are being goaded by policies to provide food security, ensure groundwater conservation, and now, protect Delhi from pollution, while Delhi elites are required to do nothing. The other irony is that Delhi’s environment is repeatedly being rescued by judicial interventions and not by its elected representatives. Delhi needs radical policies — more car-free zones, increased taxation on sale of private vehicles, clampdown on illegal parking and making a garage a prerequisite for car purchase.

It is time that we acknowledge that smog is only a symptom. What Delhi suffers from in reality is irresponsible consumption and urban misgovernance.

Amitangshu Acharya is Leverhulme PhD Scholar at University of Edinburgh, U.K. Dr. Sunderrajan Krishnan is Executive Director, Indian Natural Resource Economics and Management Foundation, Gujarat

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Printable version | Dec 9, 2021 4:50:09 AM |

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