The air is thick, its noxious quality haunting the capital city. It's not the frighteningly high levels of pollution that's making us choke on our food, but which party will come in after Delhi goes to polls on February 8 and in effect fix the year-round problem for which no one supposedly can be blamed.
The end of 2019, like the last months of years since 2016, saw people of Delhi buying masks, air purifiers and remaining indoors as much as they could. But as soon as December grew closer and other matters began dominating headlines, one forgot that the residents were still gasping for clean air. The coughs and sneezes on public transport were telling of what has been seeping through to our lungs.
Whoever takes office in Delhi's Vidhan Sabha will be expected to help residents who have seen cases of lung diseases growing, as experts like Dr Arvind Kumar, Chairman of Thoracic and Robotic Surgery at Ganga Ram Hospital has said many times.
Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal blames the neighbouring states and in essence the opposition parties — Congress in Punjab, and BJP in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana — who have been unable to prevent their farmers from burning crop residue.
According to central government data, total paddy straw produced in Haryana and Punjab together is 28.10 million tonnes (2018 estimates) out of which 11.3 mt was burnt in the fields. 59.79% of the straw was managed through incorporation in the soil and other measures. In Haryana, 16.9% of the straw was burnt while in Punjab it was 49.47%. Haryana accounted for 11.85% of the straw while Punjab accounts for 88.15% of the straw burnt in these states.
And while the Central government provides 50% assistance on the cost of the machinery like Happy Seeder, which removes crop residue, farmers are not entirely buying into them yet.
Congress' manifesto for the Delhi polls states concerning stubble burning, coordinate with "Punjab, Haryana and UP government to create rice stubble to energy fund". And that it would use 25% of Delhi's budget to fighting pollution.
A Teri study from 2018 had analysed the year things got out of hand and have consistently been so — since 2016 winter. Industries were the most significant contributors to the pollution in Delhi, with 30% of the concentration, followed closely by transport at 28%.
First, we look at vehicles. There is a ban on diesel vehicles which are older than ten years and petrol vehicles which are older than 15 years from plying on the roads – prohibited by order of the Supreme Court in 2018. But this makes no difference at the moment when the national capital has a massive number of vehicles at 1.09 crore, according to the Delhi Economic Survey 2018-19 report. The report also shows that the number of cars per thousand population increased considerably from 317 to 598 during the period.
So, do things like the free bus rides for women, which the AAP brought in, help? It would perhaps be better if people are brought off the roads and onto the Metro system.
One group of people which hardly ever uses public transport (except on well-publicised occasions) are ministers. Look at the election campaigning for Delhi Assembly elections: ministers and wannabe MLAs got on their fuel-guzzling SUVs, or stood on their open-top jeeps waving at the public as their beast of a car spewed fumes at those who will give them the power seat.
Couldn't they have taken a bicycle? BJP's MP Vijay Goel had, last year, in protest ridden a bicycle to Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia's home. He had then said, "We are carrying paddy stubble for Sisodia in a protest against his government's failure to do anything to curb air pollution in Delhi and the role of AAP MLAs in Punjab behind stubble burning".
Teri study broke down the pollution load in Delhi by vehicles. Trucks and tractors generate 9% of the pollution, followed by 7 per cent from two-wheelers, 5% from three-wheelers, 3% each from cars and buses, and 1% from light commercial vehicles.
While the Central government is trying to push for electric vehicles, the infrastructure to support them still needs to be figured out. AAP on its part is offering a subsidy of Rs 10,000 for the purchase of electric two-wheelers and Rs 30,000 for electric autos and carriers. This is a provision in the Delhi Electric Vehicle Policy 2019 that was approved by the Delhi cabinet at the end of last year. But then again, the fact remains that charging points for electric vehicles remain precariously low, making the EV's a burden many would not want to take.
Which party would take matters into control and deliver something feasible, where people will want to take public transport and not add more to their carbon footprint?
The BJP's manifesto, named the 'Sankalp Patra', says that it would "smake all necessary efforts, in coordination with the Central government (which is itself), to control air pollution and improve the quality of air in Delhi".
It goes on to say that they will install WAYU equipment at polluted traffic junctions to purify the air. The WAYU (Wind Augmentation Purifying Unit) was developed by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research — National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (CSIR-NEERI).
The first two such devices installed were in September of 2018 at ITO and Mukarba Chowk. But last year Union Environment Ministry Secretary CK Mishra had said that roadside air purifiers had failed to combat air pollution.
He had said, in a report quoted by The Hindu, "Some measures have worked, some have not. The NEERI air purifiers on roadsides that were meant to suck polluted air have not worked; HEPA filters installed on top of buses have also not worked. However, we have to try different solutions and keep experimenting," said Mishra.
So why promise something which hasn't worked in the first place?
Anyway, it also promises the 'Pari-Yantra' air purification systems to be installed on the rooftops of all public transport buses. And "incentivising the use of electric" vehicles and reducing the use of petrol-diesel ones, with charging points at petrol stations, metro stations and shopping complexes. Furthermore, it promises a more accessible and convenient public transport "so that there is a behavioural preference for public transport and the use of personal vehicles is reduced".
It has also said it would build dedicated cycle tracks and designate selected streets as cycleways.
The Congress' manifesto also focuses on electric vehicles, saying it would make the city the first 'electric vehicle city' via DEVI – the 'Delhi Electric Vehicles Initiative'.
The manifestos of these parties, though fail to address the question of industries, which contribute 30% of the pollution? When Mayapuri's illegal industries were ordered to be closed last year by the National Green Tribunal and Delhi Pollution Control Board, headed by the AAP government, it became a game of political opportunism.
The sealing drive saw a violent protest by the workers and owners of the small industries, and the BJP and Congress used it to blame the AAP of ineptitude. Around the time of Lok Sabha elections (2019), Manoj Tiwari, Delhi BJP chief used the incident to lodge a complaint against the AAP, with Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) of Delhi, alleging that the sealing drive was being conducted selectively during the imposition of model code of conduct.
He went on to say that BJP workers along with locals protested against the sealing drive as it was conducted on the day of Ram Navami.
But such a reaction by the Centre-led BJP to curbing one of the top causes of pollution does not make sense when small industries contribute to 14% of the pollution emitted.
In fact, BJP's manifesto says it will "remove all obstacles in the functioning of over 3 lakh household industries by streamlining all regulatory and approval processes". It also says it will stop sealing drives, while the Congress and AAP have reacted to it with astonishment, blaming the party of conducting the sealing in Delhi.
Delhi's ruling party, the AAP had in January, released what they call a "guarantee card", with 10-point promises.
One promise related to pollution, calling it a "big problem in Delhi", which it said would be "significantly reduced in the next five years", with "dust on roads will be removed using vacuum cleaners. With planting two crore trees, Green Delhi will be made."
Its manifesto promises to reduce pollution to a third from current levels, plant over two crore trees and clean the Yamuna.
Memorably, while AAP was in power, it twice implemented the odd-even scheme for cars when the situation in winter went from bad to worse. But it has been unable to fix the stubble burning problem with coordination along with other states. Perhaps the national parties are still unwilling to give the new party its due place.
PM 2.5, fine particulate matter, which reaches into your lungs causes an immediate host of problems but on a longer-term exposure, which all Delhiites are exposed to, results in lung and heart disease.
Same is the case with PM 10 particles which are so small that they effectively act like a gas. When breathed in, they penetrate deep into the lungs, causing coughing and wheezing to asthma attacks and bronchitis to high blood pressure, heart attack, strokes and premature death.
During winter, PM 2.5 PM2.5 concentration by industries contributed to 30% of the pollutant, while PM 10 contribution made by Industries stood at 27%.
In 2019 November, the pollution levels had reached an emergency stage, and yes, it was mostly contributed by the crop burning in neighbouring states. According to SAFAR, on November 13, the levels of PM 2.5 - tiny particulate matter breached the emergency threshold of 300 micrograms per cubic metre in Delhi-NCR. They shot up to 322 micrograms per cubic metre, around six times the safe limit of 0-60, in the morning.
The levels of PM10 increased to 487 micrograms per cubic metre in the morning, roughly five times the safe limit of 100 micrograms per cubic metre.
And what's the easiest way in? Dust. It contributes to 18 per cent of the pollution. With many roads still unpaved, and paved roads being turned to dust overnight, construction taking place daily without following norms, there is bound to be dust everywhere. Even indoors, you cannot escape the steely grip of dust.
BJP manifesto says it would carry out "mechanised sweeping of busy main roads will be carried out to prevent pollution due to dust. Regular sprinkling of water will also be undertaken on a large scale".
Congress on its part too promises a 'dust management plan' and to 'reduce carcinogenic dust particles in Delhi's air-shed'.
While the solution last year was to ban construction work altogether for a little over a month, knee-jerk reactions will always have its victims first. Which government will do something decisive for the people of this city? Who will shut down the polluting industries, remove polluting cars, stop all construction flouting norms, leave aside their differences and meet to prevent crop burning?
This story was originally published in The Patriot.