A Long-Term Vision and Systems Thinking Can Fight Air Pollution in Delhi

Smog eclipses India's capital.
Smog eclipses India’s capital.

By Meghna Tare

While 195 countries and nearly 150 world leaders are gathered in Paris for the COP21 U.N. climate change conference, the capital of India, New Delhi, is fighting a battle to combat air pollution after its high court finally acknowledged that living in the city was like “living in a gas chamber.”

New Delhi, the sixth-most populated metropolis in the world, is one of the most heavily polluted cities in India having one of the country’s highest volumes of particulate matter pollution. In May 2014 the World Health Organization (WHO) announced New Delhi as the most polluted city in the world. The city suffers from air pollution caused emissions and exhaust from motor vehicles, power plants, and other heavy industries, as well as agricultural and biomass waste burning.

A 2012-2013 Government of India Economic Survey of Delhi reported that the city has more than 7.4 million vehicles on its roads, with 1,200 more added each day. The air is already having long-term effects on children in the Indian capital, 4.4 million of whom already have irreversible lung damage. There is evidence of a spectrum of health problems, ranging from allergies and respiratory conditions, malformations, growth restrictions and even an increasing incidence of cancer.

Delhi did get their act together and managed to clean up its air. At the turn of the century, the local government moved polluting industries out of the city, shut down coal-burning power plants and forced public transport vehicles to move from diesel and petrol to cleaner gas alternatives. Delhi Metro, an intra-city electric rail system is the world’s 12th largest metro system in terms of both length and number of stations and became operational since December 2002.

The Delhi Metro Rail Corp. has been certified by the United Nations as the first metro rail and rail-based system in the world to get “carbon credits for reducing greenhouse gas emissions” and helping in reducing pollution levels in the city by 630,000 tons every year. A key motivation behind building a mass transit system in Delhi was to ease traffic congestion, and to have a considerable impact on air quality. A recent assessment by Beijing-based Greenpeace East Asia shows that between August 2014 and August 2015, Delhi’s levels of particulate matter PM2.5 (fine, respirable pollution particles) were far higher than those in Beijing.

As a result of all these efforts, the air quality improved steadily until 2007. A World Bank case study that monitored the impact of the Delhi Metro (DM) on pollution in Delhi between 2004 and 2006 found that there was a significant reduction in carbon monoxide nitrogen dioxide at a major traffic intersection in central Delhi. But 2009 onwards, levels have been going up again.

In a desperate attempt, the Delhi high court recently decided to allow private vehicles with even and odd registration numbers on alternate days from January 1 next year. This effectively means vehicles ending with an even number are allowed on a certain day, while those with odd number plates can be driven the next day. The rule does not apply to public vehicles. Earlier this year the city also ordered all private cars older than 10 years to be taken off the roads, becoming the second major city in the world to do so after Beijing. The government also announced a slew of other measures that could help curb air pollution, including stopping roadside parking to battle congestion. The city also plans to shut down one of its oldest and least efficient thermal power plants, the Badarpur plant, commissioned in the early 1970s.

This method, more commonly known as road space rationing, is followed in various forms across the world and was successfully implemented in Beijing in 2008 ahead of the Olympics. The initiative will apply to a large bulk of nearly nine million vehicles registered in Delhi, which adds about 1,500 new vehicles to its roads every day and will present challenges, especially in a city where the citizens fail to comply even with the basic traffic laws. The city’s vehicular population is about 2.7 million cars.

While I applaud the intention behind this program, even if the Delhi government successfully implements the odd-even formula, the question still arises as to how people will commute when there has been no significant improvement in the condition or frequency of public transport. This initiative lacks some serious long term thinking and the anticipation of resources needed to enforce the rule. Delhi Police does not have the kind of manpower required to implement this decision. How will they monitor the entry of vehicles on the road?

A recent report published by The Hindu citing the national census (India walks to work: Census) stated that 26 percent people in Delhi walk to work. Eleven percent bike to work; 26 percent use public transportation like buses; 3 percent use trains; and another 3 percent use taxis. Seventeen percent of the people use two-wheeler private vehicles, and 13 percent go to office in their four-wheelers.

The data is representative of inequality. At present, only 30 percent are are going to their offices in private vehicles. So, there is basic flaw in the assumption and implementation of the program. What Delhi needs is to have the ambition to be a smart city with good infrastructure, access to public transportation, cleaner/alternative fuels for all modes of transportation, and strict enforcement of Clean Air Standards. Delhi needs Blue Zones Projects — a community well-being improvement initiative designed to make healthy choices easier through permanent changes to environment, policy, and social networks. The Blue Zones Project is a systems approach in which citizens, schools, employers, restaurants, grocery stores and community leaders collaborate on policies and programs that supports sustainable communities. Policy formulation has got to have a long-term vision if Delhi wants to be successful in the fight against air pollution.

Image credit: Flickr/Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier

Meghna is the Executive Director, Institute for Sustainability and Global Impact at the University of Texas at Arlington where she works collaboratively with faculty, staff, the student body, and community members to address opportunities to promote sustainability in greening facility operations, promoting innovative research, and supporting and encouraging student initiatives. She recommends policies and strategies to advance the university’s commitment to sustainability. She is a TEDx UTA speaker, graduated with an MBA in Sustainable Management, was featured as Women in CSR by TriplePundit,, and is an active blogger. She has a sunny and positive attitude about life and all of its adventures, and is a relentless optimist who enjoys building strong relationships and partnerships. You can connect with her on LinkedIn, follow her on Twitter @meghnatare or visit her website.

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