Struggling to Breathe, Delhi Bans Petrol, Diesel Vehicles

This year, India's capital city, Delhi, recorded its worst November air pollution in six years, official data shows. The city recorded 11 days of "severe" pollution, up from 10 days in November 2016.

To keep Delhi's smothering air pollution in check, only CNG and electric vehicles were allowed entry to the city from November 27 until December 3. The entry of fossil-fueled vehicles from outside Delhi, except for those needed for essential services, has been stopped.

During that week, only CNG-run and electric vehicles were allowed entry into the national capital, where the city's population of 30.5 million residents are choking in the smog.

In the year 2020, there were almost 12 million registered motor vehicles in Delhi. During the last decade, the number has nearly doubled.

On November 21, all schools in Delhi were shut down until further orders of the Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas, due to the rising levels of air pollution in the city. Some of the schools forced to close had just reopened for the first time in nearly 20 months, because of COVID-19.

Since Diwali, the festival of lights celebrated this year from November 2 to 6, the Air Quality Index of the national capital was labeled "very poor" or, even worse, "severe." A change in wind direction, agricultural burning and Diwali firecrackers were considered the main reasons behind the thick, smoggy air quality, even though the Delhi government banned the sale, use and storage of firecrackers in the city ahead of Diwali this year in view of the deteriorating air quality.

Delhi's air quality improved when strong surface winds swept through the city on Sunday with today's AQI recorded at 280, a level categorized as "poor" by the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR).

Last week, after a high-level meeting to decide on measures that could clear the city's air, Delhi Environment Minister Gopal Rai told a press briefing that schools, colleges, and libraries that were closed earlier in November would be reopened from November 29 onwards. Government offices were reopened on Monday, and Rai advised everyone to use public transit rather than driving.

"We have also decided to deploy special CNG buses for major colonies like Timarpur and Gulabi Bagh among others from where Delhi government employees commute for the office. We will also start shuttle bus service from Delhi Secretariat to ITO and Indraprastha metro stations for the employees," Rai told reporters.

The Delhi government on Monday lifted the ban on construction activities after a marginal improvement in the national capital's air quality.

The Delhi government had just removed air pollution restrictions from construction and demolition activities.

WE HAVE DEPLOYED 585 TEAMS TO KEEP A CHECK AT SUCH SITES TO CURB THE DUST POLLUTION. THOSE FOUND VIOLATING THE NORMS WILL BE PENALIZED AND SUBJECTED TO STRICT ACTION WITHOUT ANY NOTICE WHATSOEVER.

Gopal Rai

Delhi Environment Minister

India’s Supreme Court Takes Action

In fact, Delhi is not alone. Toxic smog has formed across much of northern India as happens every winter when industrial and vehicular emissions mix with smoke from crop-burning after the harvest.

While farmers often have been blamed for exacerbating the pollution problem, government lawyers told India's Supreme Court on Monday that crop-burning amounts to only about 10 percent of emissions.

The Supreme Court imposed a partial lockdown in the capital. At a hearing November 22, the justices ordered authorities to halt all nonessential travel on roads in the national capital region and to close offices in the area, relegating tens of millions of people to work from home.

The justices said the partial closure was prompted by "measurements of harmful airborne particles hovering at 20 times the safe limit recommended by the World Health Organization."

A special bench of the Supreme Court will continue hearing the petition by 17-year-old Delhi student Aditya Dubey concerning rising levels of air pollution in Delhi.

The top court said that the toxic level of pollution in the national capital was painting a negative picture of the country to the world and called for a thorough statistical and scientific study as well as a graded response to combat the problem.

“There is no comprehensive strategy, no comprehensive plan," said Jai Dhar Gupta, a former member of the Delhi government’s air pollution think-tank who now heads a citizens’ movement to create awareness about air pollution, My Right to Breathe.

R.V. Asokan, the honorary secretary-general of the Indian Medical Association representing 350,000 doctors, told Reuters the air pollution made people more susceptible to coronavirus infection. "The PM2.5 particles break the nasal passage barrier, weaken the inner lining of lungs, facilitating the spread of the coronavirus infection," Asokan said.

Doctors and researchers around the world have reported a link between pollution and deaths in patients whose lungs are weakened by the coronavirus.

It is the workers who must pedal for their living who suffer the most from the polluted air.

Secretary General of the Federation of Rickshaw Puller Associations Vighnesh Jha, told a town hall meeting, "We are most exposed to deadly air pollution 24 hours a day, and yet the government does not take us seriously.”

THE E-RICKSHAW PLAYS AN INSTRUMENTAL ROLE IN DELHI’S PUBLIC TRANSPORT, AS A LAST MILE SOLUTION. WE URGE PULITICAL PARTIES TO CONSIDER OUR DEMANDS, AND PROMOTE ELECTRIC E-RICKSHAWS, THEIR CHARGING INFRASTRUCTURE, AND PUBLIC TRANSPORT IN GENERAL.

Vighnesh Jha

Secretary-General of the Federation of Rickshaw Puller Associations