On November 1st 2019, New Delhi’s air pollution was officially declared a public health emergency, resulting in schools being closed and flights being canceled. In a city known for its alarmingly hazardous air quality, this move should have been expected; yet, it came as a shocking reminder of just how bad things were—and just how bad they could get.
To Delhites—the residents of New Delhi—air pollution is only treated as a serious threat during the winter season. From November to January, the tangible effects of poor air quality are visible in the form of haze-coated skies—a reminder of the smog that lives within the city. However, as soon as the colder weather lifts, so does the gray film that darkens the air, and blue skies return once more. Frustrated environmentalists believe that both citizens and politicians do not take the issue seriously enough, and only pay attention to it in moments when it becomes glaringly obvious. November of 2019 was one of these moments.
The government response to the catastrophic rise in air pollution was largely short term and framed as a public health emergency. Schools were abruptly canceled and there was a reinstatement of a previously-used law known colloquially as the “odd-even rule.” The aim of this rule is to reduce traffic on New Delhi’s highly congested roads and highways by allowing drivers to only use their cars on specific days determined by the last digit of their license plate number. Additionally, it provides an incentive for people to remain at home, where many may have access to air purifiers and a more comfortable breathing space. Yet, in spite of these measures, the recommendations and guidelines provided by the Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority (EPCA) and local government officials are considered to be largely reactive and discriminatory against the lower class.
Air pollution does not adhere to the socioeconomic lines that geographically divide New Delhi. Despite being India’s capital and second richest city, 33% of New Delhi’s population is made up of migrants that hail from the countryside and move to urban areas in search of better lives and opportunities. These migrants also make up the majority of the city’s poor. They are confined to places known as slum settlements, where the houses are makeshift, unstable structures created from scraps of mettle, cardboard, and mud. These structures provide hardly any protection from poor air quality, which permeates every corner of the metropolis. Additionally, those living beneath the poverty line do not have access to the air purifiers and high quality masks that the middle class uses to combat the smog, so the poor are the most vulnerable to the dangerous health effects of air pollution. The government barely provided the residents of these slum settlements with any practical solutions that would truly allow them to protect themselves—most migrant families cannot afford cars anyway.
The high pollution levels were formally attributed to several factors by the EPCA: the heavy use of firecrackers, unfavorable weather conditions, and most importantly, stubble burning. The beginning of winter coincides with the occurrence and celebration of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, where fireworks and firecrackers are consistently burst on city streets for 5 days straight. Simultaneously, as winter begins to set in, the air over New Delhi begins to cool, settling over the city as it grows more dense and prevents the air below it from escaping. The unfortunate combination of explosives polluting the air and natural weather conditions preventing the dispersal of this polluted air creates a perfect storm for New Delhi’s “hazardous” air quality scores throughout the month of November.
Yet experts and government officials are also putting much of the blame for the unbearable air quality on massive crop-burning by farmers in the neighboring states of Haryana and Punjab. In October and November, farmers often set fire to the leftover crop stubble as a cheap way to clear their fields and restore soil nutrients for the next season, even though this method is banned in India. The issue has become one of political contention between neighboring states, resulting in the matter being raised to the Supreme Court of India, where it will hopefully be fully resolved.
While stubble-burning has strongly been condemned politically and scientifically, the farmers remain steadfast in their belief that they have no other choice. Fire remains the cheapest option for most, as machines are too expensive and state governments have not offered them enough financial assistance. Farmers from these rural areas claim that they have unfairly become scapegoats for a problem that is much larger than them, and stubble burning is simply a financial necessity. The inability of the various state governments to effectively communicate with each other and enact needed measures has left New Delhi in a dire state where the lives of millions are at risk.
Though the migrants in New Delhi and the farmers in neighboring states fall on opposing sides of the complex issue of city air pollution, the needs of both groups are being pushed aside by a government that seems unequipped to address the problem of worsening air quality at its root. This sentiment was expressed by hundreds of citizens of New Delhi who gathered in protest at the India Gate in November of 2019 to voice their frustrations. Environmentalist Vimlendu Jha, who led the protest, called New Delhi a “gas chamber,” noting that “it is a collective failure as it is the responsibility of the state and central government to resolve the issue.” A comprehensive solution by the government is urgently required as New Delhi enters another winter, and the threat of smog looms over the city once more.
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