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Ragini Khurana is the programmes and communications intern with Restless Development’s India office.

Every breath you take… is causing irreversible lung damage if you are a child living in Delhi, India’s capital city. There are tons of other, similarly snappy statistics about the dangerously poor quality of Delhi’s air that make memorable headlines:

“Air Quality in Delhi worst of any major city in the world, says WHO”.

“Breathing Delhi air akin to smoking 15-20 cigarettes a day”.

“Delhi loses 80 lives to air pollution every day”.  

The pollution in Delhi’s air is not a fact that is (or can be) questioned or denied by residents or political leaders. What is even more worrying is that people are starting to treat it as a fact that cannot be changed. For at least the past three years, air pollution in Delhi in November has consistently reached “severe” levels on the national Air Quality Index (AQI); a level at which the poor air quality “affects healthy people and seriously impacts those with existing diseases.”

In November 2017, the pollution levels in some parts of the city were beyond what air quality instruments could measure, and a public health emergency had to be declared. And as such drastic deteriorations in air quality become an annual occurrence, residents not only become more accustomed to the extreme event itself but also start using it as a general standard for judging air quality. If you have experienced air pollution at the level of 999, then 450 is an improvement worth celebrating.

Such routinization of the phenomenon is undesirable because when we stop treating something like a problem that needs to be dealt with and start treating it like an inconvenient truth that needs to be accepted, the momentum for action tends to whittle away. Neither do we feel a pressing need to adjust our own behaviour, nor do we expect our political leaders to adopt effective policies that have a concrete, visible (in this case, literally visible) impact.

Busy traffic in Delhi

Responding to the November 2017 pollution emergency, Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal tweeted that a solution was needed “to crop burning in adjoining states”. The dangerous peaks reached each year at the onset of winter can indeed be attributed to a combination of large- scale seasonal crop-burning in Delhi’s neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana, unfavourable meteorological conditions and smoke from firecrackers burned during Diwali festivities. However, it is misleading to suggest that these are the primary causes of the city’s toxic air, when what they really do is aggravate an already dreadful situation. Even outside of the critical period of November-December, Delhi’s air quality is rarely ever better than “poor” on the AQI scale.

The main contributors to the pollution are vehicular emissions, industrial emissions and dust; factors that cannot be so easily blamed on an external government or treated as something that cannot be helped.

To be sure, a string of measures have been introduced by the state and national governments, on their initiative or on the orders of the Supreme Court, to stem surges in pollution levels. However, a majority of these policies are ad-hoc, temporary solutions that are adopted when the situation reaches emergency levels.

Even the more comprehensive strategies that have been introduced, including the central government’s latest National Clean Air Programme which requires 102 of the country’s most polluted cities to reduce particulate matter by 2024 (no specific reduction targets have been set), are not ambitious enough.

Bus in Delhi

Valentin Foltescu, Senior Programme and Science Officer of the Climate & Clean Air Coalition said that  if current policies for reducing air pollution are effectively enforced, and that is by no means a given, the air quality will not worsen beyond is current level, but it will also not improve. Put differently, it will not become more of a health hazard than it already is.

Significantly improving air quality will require quantifiable emission reduction targets and timelines, and  the definition of such targets is unlikely without wider public acknowledgement of the intensity of the problem.

Widespread public recognition is essential to increase public appetite and acceptance for policies such as congestion pricing, prohibitions on diesel vehicles and restrictions on the number of cars allowed, which demand behavioural changes in residents.

Both the government and civil society organisations need to devote resources to conduct awareness campaigns that remind the inhabitants of Delhi of the acute pollution crisis that they have acclimatised themselves to, and its implications for their health and well-being. Now that the race for Dilli’s dil is over, perhaps all those billboards can focus on the city’s lungs instead?

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