Let me apologise to the readers at the very outset for the angry tone of this article. But the truth is that I am angry. Anyone would be at the sheer callousness of our successive governments since the late 1950s. Let me explain. All my life I have lived in North India, or more accurately, Delhi. Until the late 1990s, the sky here was blue. But since then, it has become browner by the year. When you fly into Delhi you start descending into the brown cloud of dust and man-made particles when you are as high as 20,000 feet. Gradually the ground below becomes hazy and almost disappears by the time you are at 5,000 ft. It’s this filthy air we now breathe day in and day out. In fact, we had nearly forgotten what clean air is like until the lockdown of April 2020.
Then, suddenly, the sky over Delhi and the National Capital Region became like it used to be, clear and blue. In fact, even during October and November 2020, despite the stubble burning, the air remained clean and the sky blue. Then, as the lockdown was gradually lifted, the brown smog returned. By April we were back where we started. It remains that way.
It has become obvious to everyone that vehicular movement is largely responsible for the NCR’s dirty air. The Air Quality Index for PMI 2.5, the particles that injure your lungs the most but are invisible, rarely comes down below 325 and usually stays between 350 and 400. And, just as people in the West check every morning to see if it will rain, people here check to see how bad the air is. And if it’s below 350 they feel relieved. I am sure all our lungs are brown or even black by now, as if every man, woman and child has been a chain smoker since he or she was born.
When you fly into Delhi you start descending into the brown cloud of dust when you’re as high as 20,000 feet. Gradually the ground below becomes hazy and almost disappears by the time you are at 5,000 ft.
Verily, North India, in the circle from Amritsar to Lucknow is a gas chamber. Around 300 million people, or the entire population of the US, live here and breathe this air. The tragedy is that while an antidote to the coronavirus has been found, there is zero effort being made to reduce vehicular pollution even though it affects everyone living here, that too all 12 months of the year. No mask is good enough. Social distancing is irrelevant.
And unlike the virus induced pandemic, things are only going to get worse because the government will not do the obvious thing — disperse the offices. Instead, it is busy concentrating more offices in Delhi. So what we get from stubble burning for 45 days every year during October and November, we get for 365 days because of office and business concentration and the vast vehicular movements this causes, along with an entirely unnecessary degree of construction that goes on all the time, everywhere.
In 2011 the population of the city of Delhi alone was 1.6 crore. In 2021 it was over 2 crore. If you take the NCR as a whole which you must because people drive around in it all the time, we are talking of around 3 crore people. As to the number of vehicles, Delhi alone has around one crore. Add another 20 lakh or so for the NCR and a daily truck movement of around 200,000 that pass through the region. That’s when you begin to get a measure of the sheer enormity of the pollution problem.
So what’s the solution: over the next ten years move all, except the home, defence, finance and external affairs ministries, out of the NCR to towns with smaller populations. Their facilities will improve and the NCR’s pollution will abate.