The Delhi-NCR region woke to an air quality index reading of 463 in a scale of 500 (100 is about moderate and tolerable) on Wednesday morning, after two days of being under a hanging blanket of haze, described as a “gas chamber”. The situation is far more serious than the seasonal winter phenomenon it is inured to suffering. There is an ecological emergency over a large swathe of land across northern India, stretching beyond Pakistan’s Punjab. The unbearable pollution levels in the National Capital Region — with PM-10 and PM-2.5 levels at least 10 times over permissible limits — are now being driven by four unfavourable factors — temperature, windspeed, humidity and atmospheric boundary layer, the Central Pollution Control Board says. Extreme urbanisation is exacerbating the problem. Things are so extreme that it’s time the Centre wakes up to a problem that is affecting the lives and lifestyle of hundreds of millions of people.
Schools can’t be shut down for long periods. Delhi’s odd-even vehicular rule, if introduced, may ease traffic congestion somewhat, but won’t contribute much to an overall solution. A high-powered group of Central and state ministers and administrators heading a committee of environmentalists, technocrats and diverse experts should be tasked with finding solutions and planning measures to tackle this emergency holistically. The committee must also be empowered to take decisions involving expenditure of crores of rupees as much has to be done to make a difference. Farmers burning stubble as they don’t want to pay labour to clear it, the construction industry taking no steps to control dust and trucks and public transport vehicles spewing diesel must be reined in. Whatever attempted solutions may need by way of laws, regulations and sanctions must be addressed first.
The draconian measures Beijing could take to improve its air quality can only be a source of envy to those who desire to fight pollution in India, to which the Diwali firecrackers contribute only a bit for a few days. We must be prepared to take stern action to regulate those contributing the most to this toxic atmosphere in which children are growing up. Warnings have been issued about 88 per cent of premature deaths occurring in India where air pollution is escalating at an alarming rate.
Given the rate at which we are losing control over factors causing deterioration of air quality, urban clusters may become uninhabitable soon. This is a national emergency and not just a localised problem for the Delhi region. How official India responds now will determine whether the national capital’s leaders and citizens can hope to live in an atmosphere of breathable air. We owe it to posterity to act now so that coming generations can have a better quality of life.