Five Success Factors for conquering the Delhi Pollution Problem

If there is one question that Delhi residents ought to ask themselves it is this: What are the success factors for conquering the Delhi Air Pollution?

Success Factor#1: The Need for Data

Let’s consider the facts.

Fact#1: Over a million Indians died in 2016 due to air pollution. Delhi is ranked as the most polluted city of the world, losing up to 30,000 people a year to this menace.

Fact#2: There are many causes for Delhi’s poor air. They vary by season. Particulate matter levels (or PM levels), especially the smallest, most deadly particles (or PM 2.5), are highest in winter. From several studies (see figures below), the PM 2.5 levels appear to be primarily driven by biomass burning, secondary particles and vehicular (and diesel genset) exhausts. “Secondary particles” is a catch-all term holding particles having multiple origins including coal plants and industrial emissions. Focussing on controlling the origins of these particles is critical in seeing a reduction in the pollution levels.

IIT-Kanpur Study – 2013 data

Delhi Pollution Cause 1

World Bank Study – 2001 data

Delhi Pollution Cause 2

But we need more data – not just of pollution levels (PM levels), but also of what caused them. Sporadic studies are not enough. A more personal example will help explain this: suppose I have a child who is not doing too well in Mathematics at his school. I will need to see both his marks in his Maths tests, as well as his answers to understand what kind of help he needs. Not just that, ideally, I would like to see his monthly marks to ensure whatever help I give him is working. Getting his overall marks every two years will not help.

In the same way, we will need continuous monitoring to know if the actions we take are having an impact. For example, to check if shutting down the Badarpur power plant is helping, we need to monitor secondary particle levels to gauge if this is having the impact we hoped it would.

Importantly, the data needs to be easily accessible by anyone who wants it. We’ll come to why in a bit.

This is Success Factor#1 – the need to have complete, online, transparent data on the pollution levels and their sources. PS: this part is NOT very expensive.

Success Factor#2: Overcome Tokenism and go for a cheap public transport system with an extensive network and adequate last-mile connectivity

Vehicular Emissions are determined by five factors: number of vehicles, driving style, fuel quality, maintenance and vehicle design. This order of listing is intentional. With thousands of vehicles meandering cheek-to-jowl on the roads, merrily running on first and second gear in an endless stop-and-go dance, neither Odd-Even schemes nor banning trucks – 15 years old or otherwise – will have the impact we desire.


(Picture from Wikimedia Commons)

Our actions – Odd-even, hiking parking charges, banning trucks from entry – have been tokenism, and as can be expected, have not yielded any noticeable dip in pollutants. For doing that, we need to get the number of vehicles down substantially.

To get down the number of vehicles, we need a good public transportation system that provides cheap transport with good last mile connectivity. Public imagination immediately springs to a metro, but a little thought shows that a bus or a tram for the last mile connectivity is critical.


Since this has been covered in detail in an earlier article, let me summarise the main points:

Convenience – as defined by time – makes bicycling or walking (assuming the necessary infrastructure) the ideal choice for distances less than 6 km, and public transport the most convenient for longer distances.

Cost – both fixed costs and per-km user costs – destroys the argument for metros as the choice for public transport when compared with a light rail or a bus transport system – especially for country with a large motorcycle population. A lower fixed and running cost with a bus transit system means a much longer and dispersed network – addressing the last mile connectivity that is critical to drive adoption.

So, let us buy those buses, and develop the public transport system that we so desperately need. This is Success Factor #2.

Success Factor#3: Treating Paddy waste as a resource with economic value to the farmer


(Picture courtesy The Hindu)

Bans don’t work – solutions might. This was the subject of the last column, so I will merely summarise here. At the heart of the solution lies a paradigm shift: getting farmers to see the waste as a resource – worthy of not being burned. Options include:

  • Installing Biogas plants –by enabling collection and by ensuring by-products such as compost are marketed.
  • Making the straw into pellets, for easier transport and burning.
  • Using straw in power plants (like the recently announced NTPC tender offer).
  • Mulching and using the straw to fertilize the soil. Making this easier by
    • Extending the gap between summer and winter crops by using a fast-growing Paddy variety
    • Rental of machinery to collect, and incorporate the straw into the soil
    • Using special seeders that can plant the winter crop while the straw lies on the field.
    • Natural farming – that increases the value of using the straw as fertilizer.

Call this lot of options, collectively, as Success Factor#3.

There is a sub-point here on the role played by municipal waste. The same factor of making waste a resource matters, and will be covered at a later stage.

Success Factor#4: Reduce the size of straw burning problem by examining subsidies

Lastly, we saw that the problem of paddy burning is so big because of the subsidies on electricity, MSP and fertilizer. Transferring some part of the subsidy to machinery rental that reduces the burning of straw could help align incentives of farmers with the air breathing residents of the capital.

Aligning incentives is not going to be easy. Having a process by which ministers of agriculture, environment, commerce and the concerned chief ministers could meet regularly to examine this issue would be Success Factor#4.

Success Factor#5: Sustained civil society engagement

The “Play” titled “Solving Delhi’s pollution crisis”, which is a both tragedy and farce, has many actors. First, the citizens, and our leaders, who we choose through free and fair elections.

Let us start with our elected leaders. Given the highly volatile public mood, they need to be seen acting on issues, while the public’s attention remains on those issues. This often leads to knee-jerk actions.

Witness certain recent actions of the Delhi government: Announce the implementation of the Odd-Even rule on Nov 9th , Have the announcement countered by the GRAP taskforce on the same day, have it be questioned by the National Green Tribunal a day later, file a ridiculous review petition on Nov 13th , have that be questioned by the NGT a day later and withdraw it, and thankfully by then the pollution levels have dropped.

Why was the Delhi government was fighting to exempt women and two-wheelers from the Odd-Even scheme? Because there are not enough buses to cater to the extra commuters if the two-wheelers were banned. And women could feel uncomfortable packed like sardines in a public bus. Fair enough. Quite reasonably, the NGT then asked: what happened to the 4000 buses you were to buy?

We didn’t have the land to park them, was the gist of the reply. Give us the land, we’ll get the buses. Let us get the buses, and we will include two-wheelers in the Odd-Even scheme. Once we implement the Odd-even scheme, the pollution levels will come down. The Delhi government last bought buses in 2010 and has collected hundreds of crores as a green cess in the past 3 years, whose use has not been outlined.

Let us stop this for a moment and think of the plight of the poor traffic cop whose job it is to enforce the Odd-Even ban. First, he needs to know the VIP-pecking order. Even nobodies in Delhi turn out to be somebody. Of course, with the exemption of women, two-wheelers and CNG-fitted vehicles, he would need to peer closely through the smog at both the number plates and the sex of the driver.

You begin to see the problem.

Why do we fill our nation’s narrative with this nonsense when people are literally dying from this problem?

This is an important question. For, you see, others have conquered this problem.  London and Los Angeles have successfully combatted air pollution. Mexico City and Beijing have made great strides against it. One can almost think of conquering Air Pollution as a rite of passage for governance of cities. A city-puberty, if you will.

Citizen’s groups relentlessly pursuing this is one of the factors of success. China’s fight against pollution owes a lot to the “Under the Dome” documentary on air pollution which was viewed a 100 million times within a couple of days of release. To ensure groups pursue sensible (and effective) actions, having freely available, good quality data is important.

But the operative word in the above para is “relentless”.

But are we? We, as a society, have so many concerns – Air Pollution, Padmavati’s release, Cricket, GST – and our attention span is less than that of a goldfish, which leads, depressingly, to this graph:

This is the Google Trends result of Air Pollution searches originating from Delhi. Google trends measures the search interest in a topic, which serves as a useful (if imperfect) proxy for public interest in a topic.

If you want to feel more depressed, let us compare Delhi’s residents’ interest in Air Pollution vs their interest in cricketing hero, Virat Kohli. The only time Delhi residents’ interest in Air Pollution even equals there’s in Kohli is when their city becomes, in the words of their Chief Minister, a “gas chamber”.


If you were a politician who knew public interest would go away very quickly in this not-easy-to-solve problem, you too might resort to headline-catching, knee-jerk reactions, waiting for the winds and the rain to carry away the problem or the capricious public interest to be diverted.

Good news for the politicians: already the attention is waning.

Political action is NOT a leading factor. Politicians are clever people who respond to election-moving citizen desires. Which makes fact-based, non-emotive, sustained citizen involvement as the most crucial Success Factor#5.

Democracy is not a spectator sport.


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