Delhi has been grappling with air pollution for more than 25 years. But it has not come to grips with it. The National Capital Region (NCR) has the worst air quality in the world. Stage III of the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) was triggered on January 14 as air quality sank into the ‘severe’ category—the worst of six gradations, with the Air Quality Index (AQI) going beyond 450.
AQI measures the concentration of six pollutants in the air: carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrous oxide, and two kinds of microscopic dust particles called Particulate Matter (PM) — 2.5 and 10. When the air turned severely bad, older petrol cars and diesel vehicles that did not make the cut on emissions were parked compulsorily and construction activity was disallowed. This was the third time this winter season that the restrictions were imposed, the first lasting 27 days in November and the second 11 days in December.
The extremely poor air quality of Delhi raises the question of whether the capital of India will continue to grow or its growth will hit the environmental barrier.
As a growth centre, Delhi has many things going for it. The capital territory contributed 4% of India’s GDP in inflation-adjusted prices over the past seven years, while having 1.52% of the country’s population. Its per capita income at ₹4.45 lakh is two and a half times the national average, though there are a large number of people at the edge of poverty. In the past seven years it has grown at an average pace of 4.75% — but in five of those years, national GDP grew faster.
Delhi is still attractive for investors. Between October 2019 and September 2023, it ranked fourth in foreign equity inflows at $28.3 billion, behind Maharashtra, Karnataka and Gujarat. But the urban agglomeration of Delhi is more than the capital territory. The NCR includes cities like Noida, Gurugram, Faridabad and Sonipat. Foreign equity inflows into enterprises in these areas is attributed to the states they are situated in, so the NCR’s ranking would be higher if foreign direct investment in these cities is added.
Delhi constitutes a huge pool of talent. It offers plenty of opportunities for those who want to start their working life or advance in their careers. It’s an education hub and a big market. While politically its boundaries are set, the gravitational waves of urbanisation and industrialisation emanating from it can roll beyond them.
Weak economic growth in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have been pushing people to the capital region. In each of the decades between 1961 and 2001, Delhi’s population increased by around 50%. There was a steep decline in growth the following decade to 21%. The state’s economic survey said satellite cities around the capital territory were absorbing migrants and pensioners with jobs and better amenities.
The United Nations’ 2018 report on world urbanisation prospects projected the population of the ‘urban agglomeration’ of Delhi in 2015 at 26 million, higher than of the Mumbai agglomeration (19 million) and the Kolkata region (14 million). It projected the population in these cities in 2026 to be 35 million, 22 million and 16 million, respectively. Incremental growth in the Delhi region, as per the report, will be three times as much as in the Mumbai region.
More people means more use of cooking, motor and industrial fuels — and more emissions. In 1995-96, Delhi consumed 4.36 lakh tonnes of petrol. Diesel consumption was 11.98 lakh tonnes. That of kerosene was 2.4 lakh tonnes. The consumption of cooking gas was three lakh tonnes.
Since then Delhi has shifted to cleaner fuels. In 1995, lawyer M.C. Mehta moved the Supreme Court, seeking directions to the government to minimise the health risks caused by vehicular emissions. Consequently, only unleaded petrol was sold in the city by 1998. By the end of 2002, the city’s bus fleet was converted to CNG. Autos and taxis made the transition thereafter.
Under Supreme Court orders, polluting industries were forced out of the capital. The apex court also declared that petrol and diesel cars could not operate in the capital beyond 15 and 10 years, respectively. The privatisation of Delhi’s power distribution has helped. There are very few blackouts and brownouts, so the reliance on captive diesel generators has declined considerably. Even in cooking fuel, Delhi has moved entirely to gas. Kerosene is not available even in ration shops.
This is reflected in the sale of fuels. There are 7.94 million registered vehicles in the city, of which about two million are cars and four-wheel-drive vehicles and 5.29 million scooters and motorcycles. As a result, petrol consumption in the capital territory doubled to nine lakh tonnes in 2022-23 from 1995-96. Diesel consumption, however, has almost halved to 6.62 lakh tonnes.
The use of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) has risen by more than 2.5 times to 7.88 lakh tonnes and there were 14.39 lakh consumers of piped natural gas. The sale of compressed natural gas (CNG) used by buses, taxis and autorickshaws was 12.1 lakh tonnes. There was no sale of kerosene.
Despite the transition to cleaner fuels, a larger quantity of them was burnt in Delhi’s 1,483 sq. km area than about 30 years ago. More health-harming gases from increased human habitation and activity also get emitted elsewhere in the capital region. It was only since the beginning of 2022 that industries in the NCR were barred from using coal. Their annual consumption was at least 1.4 million tonnes, the Centre for Science and Environment, an activist group, reported in an article. But cleaner fuels are only relatively so. They are not squeaky clean like electricity. Construction activity in the NCR is also more frenetic than 30 years ago. That releases tonnes of dust.
Delhi’s average daily AQI in 2023 was in the ‘poor’ category at 204, albeit at the lower end of the range but not a significant improvement over 2018 (AQI 225) and 2019 (215). It was in the very poor category for three winter months last year. Unlike coastal cities where sea winds blow pollution away, Delhi has unfavourable climatic conditions which result in toxic gas getting trapped due to thermal inversion during the winter months. Low wind speeds, rise in moisture levels, low air mixing heights and people lighting bonfires to keep themselves warm when the chill sets in, all concoct an unhealthy gaseous brew.
Redemption may come when all or most vehicles, especially two-wheelers, go electric. A compact city with vertical development along mass transit corridors might also help, but it will make things worse before they get better as more construction dust will be released. Delhi is densely packed even now with 14,291 residents per square km. Higher population density will have its own set of problems.
The solution lies in improving the ease of doing business and ease of living in the states in northern India that send migrants to the NCR. That calls for improved governance. Otherwise ill health will apply the brakes on growth in the capital region. There is almost an epidemic of lung cancer, writes lung specialist Arvind Kumar in his blog. When he was a student it was an affliction of the elderly, smokers and men. But now women also contract it in increased numbers, he says. It affects people early in life and there are almost as many non-smokers as smokers who contract it.
And the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago says in its India Fact Sheet that people in the NCR lose 11.9 years of life because of air pollution.
These statistics are scary. With bad air reminding us daily that the stuff we breathe will impair our health and abridge our lives, it’s likely that those who can are relocating from the city, at least for a part of the year. It might also be deterring people with money and skills from making the city their base.