Air Pollution

What is missing in Delhi’s breathing


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Air pollution

Mains level: Impact of Air pollution and Delhi's annual air pollution problem and way ahead



  • Every year around Deepavali, and like clockwork, Delhi’s air quality makes it to the headlines. As firefighters we are doing well, but as planners doing very little. While nature will not change, emissions can be reduced. While a lot has been written and said about Delhi’s air quality, the question that still has to be answered is this: why is nothing changing after all these years?

Air pollution and its impact

  • Air pollution a health crisis in making: Increasingly polluted air is a hazard and a health crisis in the making, in fact, it is already one.
  • Air pollution related death in India: India now reports 2.5 million air pollution-related deaths annually.
  • Air pollution not confined to external hazard: Pollution not only makes our throats and eyes burn but is much more insidious.
  • Pollutants can enter bloodstreams: Some pollutants are so small that they are able to enter the bloodstream with ease, impacting almost every organ in the body and leading to the onset of health issues such as stroke, heart diseases, respiratory diseases and cancer, to name just a few serious health problems.

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Critique: Why is nothing changing after all these years?

  • Applying same approach without through evaluation: A principal reason is that year after year, we are doing the same things to try and address the problem without actually trying to evaluate why those measures are not effective.
  • Inefficiency of Commission for Air Quality Management: The Government formed the Commission for Air Quality Management, which, unfortunately, did not offer anything new. This body essentially issued the same orders the Ministry and the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority used to, with just a slight change in the language used.
  • Same advisory every year than the preventive measures: Every year schools are closed, people are advised to to stay indoors, or carpool and work from home, bans on firecrackers are reinforced, construction stopped, trucks and cars not allowed to enter the city, and industries running on fuel shut. These measures, and several others, are akin to dressing a bullet wound with band-aid.

Analysis: Is it only stubble burning is the culprit behind Delhi’s air pollution?

  • Delhi’s bad air when stubble is not being burnt: Stubble burning in the neighbouring States being identified as the main culprit. However, the reality is that Delhi’s air is bad even when stubble is not being burnt.
  • Burning of biomass in and around Delhi: The burning of biomass in and around Delhi, if audited properly, would be the same as stubble burning in other States. Unfortunately, none of the bodies, be it the municipal body or the government’s Public Works Department, is willing to take responsibility for this or address and find a solution to the problem.
  • Less compliance on construction activities: Delhi chokes on its own dust and industrial activities. No clarity on how and who is ensuring compliance with the rules relating to the handling of construction and demolition waste.
  • Heavy reliance on private Vehicles which is another major source of pollution: Vehicles are another source of pollution in the city. Despite an expanding fleet of public transport, citizens who primarily use two-wheelers have not moved to using the public transport system, buses and the metro. Reasons for this may include last-mile connectivity, the problem of crowding in buses and metros, and the inability to reach and navigate narrow lanes that two-wheelers can. The state of maintenance of buses could be another reason as well.


What needs to be done?

  • Look beyond the measures that have already been tried: We have to be creative and look beyond the measures that have already been tried and proved they are at best a short-term solution to a recurring, long-term problem.
  • Making efficient and coordinated governance mechanism: Core issue that needs to be addressed is the governance system. There needs to be a single entity that takes responsibility for air quality management. We cannot operate in silos where one system of governance is responsible for thinking, a second issues orders and a third is responsible for implementation. There need to be an efficient system that works in a coordinated way.
  • Acknowledge the reality and not just taking the actions in the time of crisis: The reality also is that Delhi is not the sole offender. There are many other cities in India where safe levels of air quality are breached regularly. We need to take more comprehensive, long-term measures throughout the year and not just in the days and weeks when it begins to make news.


  • This is not to say that stubble burning is not a problem. Some solutions have been tried out over the years, but with little success. Unless farmers are adequately compensated, the problem is unlikely to go away. What is required is a fundamental shift in agricultural patterns, and a strong political will to take bold decisions.

Mains question

Q. Do you agree with the statement that only stubble burning is the culprit behind Delhi’s air pollution?

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