Sustainable urban air quality: How Delhi squandered its chances

Keshav Chaturvedi

These days India’s capital, New Delhi, is witnessing an intellectual debate thanks to two consecutive damning reports by an international agency and an US University. In January, Yale University, claimed that Delhi’s air quality is worse than that of Beijing. Three days ago the World Health Organisation (WHO) presented a database of 1600 cities from 91 countries stating that Delhi’s air quality was worst among all of them.

All hell broke loose as the government agencies quickly got into a combative mode suggesting that their data did not match t800px-Trafficjamdelhihe one provided by the WHO. They also said that Beijing had worse air quality than Delhi but as the city did not provide enough data they seemed better off than us.
The environmentalist on the other hand rejected this line of argument saying that whether we are worse off than Beijing or not, or whether the data is over played by the WHO, is not the point. The real issue is our air quality standards have fallen drastically after considerably improving in the first decade of the 21st century.

The improvement was short lived and what was being suspected for the last few years has now been confirmed by the WHO data. According to the database the concentration of fine particles that enter your respiratory system (PM 2.5) was at 153 micro grams per cubic meter whereas the WHO standard for safe levels was at 10 micrograms per cubic meter. Similarly, the PM 10 the coarse particles were at 286 micrograms per cubic meter as against the WHO standards of 20 micrograms per cubic meters.

These two components of air pollution (i.e. PM 2.5 and PM 10) are prodcued by NOx, SOx, ammonia and carbon monoxide emission. NOx and SOx stands for various oxides of nitrogen and sulphur gases respectively that pollute the atmosphere. Vehicles, especially driven by diesel, are a major cause of NOx emission as well as carbon monoxides.

If we look at the data in Delhi the phenomenal rise in vehicles in the last 14 years has systematically eroded the good work done by the government in controlling the pollution. In 2002 the PM 10 levels in the city stood at 192 micrograms per cubic meter while the number of vehicles was at 3.9 million. It included two wheelers, three wheelers, cars, buses and small trucks and dumpers. A year earlier in 2001 the state government in one fell swoop made shift from diesel to CNG (compresses natural gas) as the preferred fuel for its public transport.

It was an action that was a result of Delhi Government’s assurance to the apex court that they would do whatever it takes to make Delhi’s transportation green enough. The plan they had submitted to the Supreme Court of India promised that by 2020 eighty percent of all the local commute within the city would be done by public transport. For this the metro rail would act as fulcrum, whereas 10000 buses would ply the roads connected with the metro rail, mono-rail would act to fill the gaps left by metro and battery operated vehicles would be used instead of diesel driven autos and taxis.

Overnight all the three wheelers, trucks and buses were ordered to change to the fuel (CNG). It led to extreme inconvenience to public and the transporters alike but the results were quick and encouraging. The metro network which was a meagre 14 kilometres in 2001 also grew quickly to connect some of the heaviest traffic regions of the city. By 2007 the PM 10 levels in the air came down to 161 micrograms per cubic meter.
However, the administration and government in the state as well as the Centre couldn’t capitalise on this success. Between the years 2007 and 2011 the PM 10 levels grew from a low of 161 micrograms per cubic metre to 281 over taking the earlier high of 191 micrograms per cubic meter recorded in 2001. This growth coincided with the rise in the number of vehicles from 5.2 million in 2007 to 7.4 million in 2011.

Add to this the vehicles that were introduced in the city had lax emission norms to begin with. Though Delhi has made it mandatory to use led free petrol and diesel the vehicles that emit noxious NOx and carbon monoxide are still plying the roads in large numbers.

As the purchasing power of the middle class increased, their need to own a car grew too. Car manufacturers around the world sensed an opportunity. So did the government. In a bid to earn huge revenues from car manufacturers, indiscriminate relaxations in both emission norms were given to the car manufacturers to set up their shops in India. The country saw a glut of models and within no time more than 100 models were available where only 10 to 15 were seen just a few years ago.

Most these models had Euro 3 standards for emission. Very few followed Euro IV and almost none followed Euro V emission norms in a vehicle. The Indian emission standards for vehicles the Bharat Stage III and IV are already nine and 14 years behind the Euro IV standards respectively. Euro V is not even in consideration. This meant that the vehicles that were being introduced had far more polluting potential than in the developed countries.
Meanwhile, under the pressure of auto lobby, which was raking in money for itself and also filling government coffers and helping banks do brisk business in car loans segment, the government also relaxed duties on diesel driven SUVs. This led to a sharp increase in the sale of diesel cars and SUVs in Delhi.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERABut that was not the only problem. The 12 hour relaxation for trucks to pass through the city brought those old trucks and buses that use inferior diesel. Their growing numbers helped in steady rise of NOx emission and concentration in Delhi’s atmosphere.

For a brief period of 15 days in October 2010 the government introduced measures to bring to personal traffic by announcing school holidays and requesting people to desist from using personal vehicles and many offices staggered their office hours to smoothen traffic for the commonwealth Games. However, this arrangement was good for such short duration events of international importance and was impossible to replicate on a long term basis.

The government of the day both in the state and the centre was stuck between the lure of revenue earned from the auto sector and the deteriorating air conditions in the city. It got into action and created a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor and introduced new buses. The metro system which grew phenomenally in the last 10 years from barely 15 kilometres in 2001 to 190 kilometres saw a surge in ridership to 2.4 million a day.

But by then the action was too little too late. The number of personal vehicles had increased to a level where no amount of government intervention made any difference. The burgeoning ownership and constant use of cars and other vehicles led to a steady deterioration in the gains made by the government itself on controlling air pollution. When the problem started getting out of hand the government acted but by now the people who were used to a certain comfort of individual transport revolted.

They were resentful of the government’s effort to clear the road for public transport on which they had little faith. The bus service even now in Delhi is woefully inadequate with only 6000 buses as against the planned 10000. Their frequency too is erratic and the problem of rash driving by the drivers, though, considerably down, is still alarming. People also didn’t appreciate the fact that the BRT system hindered the movement of personal vehicles like car and two wheelers.

The metro on the other hand did little to convince car owners to leave their vehicles and join the public transport. They still prefer to use the comforts of door to door transport which their car provides.

Here in lies the catch for every administration, poly planner and politician. The Delhi experience shows that the government in its myopic planning allowed car manufacturers to glut the market with low quality stuff. It was lapped up by a newly rich, status driven and comfort hungry population. The false sense of well being and enhanced status lulled people into believing that all was well and even if the government wasn’t doing enough to promote the integrated public transport system, it had pledged in the apex court, they didn’t mind or rather didn’t care.
Now when the air quality deteriorated and started hurting everyone’s health, the public wanted the government to do something to address the problem but with an unspoken caveat. Any action taken by the government should clean the air without letting people forfeit their comforts, they have grown accustomed to. The government on the other hand has no magic wand whereby bringing down air pollution and letting people buy as many polluting cars as they want.

This is what I call “Delhi Dilemma”. This is brought upon by the rulers who are too clever by half. They think they will let the businessmen go scot free with whatever they want to and also keep the people in good humour by pandering to their unfulfilled needs and vanity.
However, this does not work in the long run. Sooner or later the chickens come home to roost and everyone has to make a choice. However, at that moment there is no space left to make a choice which is acceptable or palatable to all the stakeholders. You have to make someone unhappy. Most of the time one ends up annoying both the parties and is unceremoniously dumped. As wise men say, “you can’t fool all the people, all the time.”

India’s capital Delhi has expanded at a phenomenal rate during the last two decades. Presence of economic opportunities in and around the city and lack of it in the hinterland, forced hundreds of thousands of people from all over the country to migrate here and turn it into a teeming metropolis.
The city, governed by the national government, was turned into a state with separate funds and its own state government with limited powers in 1993. Many years before that, another administrative entity was created to cater to the needs of a growing national capital. This was called 296px-Delhi_MontageNational Capital Region (NCR).

NCR comprises, among others, four satellite towns adjacent to the city – Gurgaon, Faridabad, NOIDA and Ghaziabad. The first two are located in the state of Haryana and the last two in the state of Uttar Pradesh. All the four cities were few kilometres away from the National capital’s boundary but now have almost merged with the capital city due to exponential expansion. The idea of NCR was to bring all the cities under one administrative unit so that there can be a consistency in planning and execution of development work. However, this could never be done because of bureaucratic hassles and lack of political will. No one wanted to leave their clout on a piece of land and the revenue it earned.

Still the government in Delhi did take some bold steps to deal with the threat of air pollution. They closed down polluting factories in the middle of the town, asked many of them to relocate, forced public transport to shift from diesel to CNG (compressed natural gas) and initiated a massive green campaign.

Yet all the benefits that could have been accrued were lost over the years due to lack of coordination in planning between Delhi and other satellite towns, rampant and unchecked urbanisation, massive migration and mindless destruction of natural habitat.
In last one decade between 2001 and 2011 the population of Delhi alone grew from 13.85 million in 2001 to 16.8 million in 2011. Satellite towns witnessed a similarly explosive if not identical growth in the number of resident.

This mass migration gave rise to the biggest industry of all – real estate. Land was at a premium as everyone wanted to have a roof over their head. This led to a huge construction boom to accommodate growing number of residents. While the satellite towns have mainly witnessed development in residential quarters and office blocks, Delhi has seen a massive push in infrastructure building too.

In the first decade of 21st century in order to host the Common Wealth Games 2010 the city saw a spurt in infrastructure building. Road widening, fly-overs, metro rail network expansion, building of new stadiums, residential complexes, hotels, a new airport and refurbishing of old buildings came with their share of side effects. This unprecedented construction activity not only led to felling of trees, destruction of parks and green spaces as well as wetland but also increased the level of dust particles in the air.

The metro construction alone has led to felling of 15000 trees by a conservative estimate. Every day the Public Works Department, the Delhi Development Authority and other builders seek permission to cut down trees. Sometimes trees are cut without seeking permission as was the case in a locality, Vasant Kunj, where recently more than 150 trees were maimed and slashed to widen the road.
Similarly last year Delhi State Industrial and Infrastructural Development Corporation (DSIIDC) sought to permission from the forest department to cut 7000 trees to create a residential complex for the economically weaker section of the society. The permission is still pending in the forest department but won’t stay there for long as the pressure to accommodate “poorer” sections will prevail over any ecological concerns.
The compensatory afforestation rule imposed by the Delhi government says that for every tree that is cut the department or the individual has to plant 10 saplings. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult as there is no land left to plant that many number of trees. More so there is no authoritative study to find out the impact and status of compensatory plantation. Whether the plants are surviving or not and if yes than how many?

Add to this the growing need to accommodate burgeoning population has been straining the capital’s as well as NCR forest reserves. The Delhi ridge which is considered to be the capital’s lungs is under severe threat from encroachers and despite Supreme Court’s repeated orders and threats the encroachments have neither been removed nor strict actions has been taken against the offenders.

In the late 1990s Delhi administration did a phenomenal job of reclaiming mines and wasteland to create green cover. The department of environment in Delhi University and its scientists worked in stone quarries in the ridge area and reclaimed them by growing dense forest.
While the pilot project succeeded, the original forest is under threat. The Delhi government has been lax in controlling construction in the ridge area. The adjacent state of Haryana, under the influence of builder lobby, is trying to dilute all the forest laws to reclaim the forest land on the Aravalli range that is part of South Delhi and Gurgaon and provide the much needed green cover. Even when the government has declared the ridge area as protected forest 20 years ago, 150 illegal colonies have come up on the forest land due to political connivance.

While it is true that the Indian Environment Ministry’s report have waxed eloquent on Delhi’s efforts to increase its green cover (and it has reported that it grew from 22 square kilometres in 1993 to 299.58 square kilometres in 2009) the built-up area in the National Capital Region, which includes residential, non-residential, landfill sites and other have also increased by 34.6 per cent from 1999-2012.

New_Delhi_Met_Office,_India_02This has happened mostly at the expense of green areas and water bodies which have gone down by 22.5 per cent and 5.9 per cent, respectively. The area under the “others” category, which include stone quarrying, brick kiln, has also increased by 159.59 per cent from 10,243 hectare to 26,590 hectare. These are the statistics presented by a study on land use change undertaken by the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) and commissioned by the National Capital Region Planning Board (NCRPB) for review of Regional Plan-2021.
The study says that the green areas have gone down from 1,45,453 hectare to 1,12,683 hectare registering a decrease of 32,769 hectare, a dip of 22.5 per cent. Similarly, the area under the water bodies has decreased by 5.9 per cent from 24,583 hectare to 23,119 hectare. The wastelands, which include gullied land, saline land, waterlogged, barren, rocky and river sand, have also gone down by 19.6 per cent from 2,91,931 hectare to 2,34,613 hectare.

The increasing problem of waste disposal has also been dealt in a lackadaisical manner. Many water bodies especially the Bhalswa Lake are now dying due to dumping of waste. The city on the eastern boundary has now extended up to the landfill in Ghazipur creating health hazards for the residents.

Data proves that one of the two departments (Environment Ministry or the NCRPB) is not telling the truth. It is true that a lot of areas which were under dense tree cover have seen rampant destruction of tree cover and urban heat islands and their area have increased in the last 5 years.
With all the cities, within the NCR, planning their own master plans for next 10 to 15 years, there is always an overlap in terms of plans as well as conflict of interest in land use and environment outlook. This confusion compounded by pressure exerted from powerful real estate lobby has steadily eroded Delhi’s gains in environment protection of the NCR.

Migration can’t be stopped in a democratic country like India. But governance can fill the gap by strictly saving the green cover and the water bodies. It can also be circumspect in initiating development projects in areas where green cover is under threat.



The author is a geography graduate and have been tracking the issue of climate change ever since the Rio Conference in 1992. He has also authored a book on the politics of climate change and was the content head of a renewable energy magazine – Energy Next. He blogs at — 


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