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Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic’ is a phrase that seems to best describe some of Delhi’s actions these days. Let’s look at some of the was announced by the government recently to fight items on the 15-point action plan that pollution. For instance, a special park to process electronic waste. While e-waste is a huge environmental problem, its exact contribution in fouling Delhi’s winter air is hazy. Indeed, not knowing precisely how much pollution comes from each source makes it hard to take strong action because polluters can point fingers at each other.

To fix this, the Delhi government had promised to set up a real-time source apportionment system that would tell us at any time what-vehicles, burning trash, or construction was causing pollution and by how much. This system was supposed to be up and running by the end of October, but, at the time of writing, it is not yet. Until then, talking heads squabble while most existing studies blame vehicles and stubble burning for the PM2.5 pollution spike (add dust/industries for PM10).

Does Delhi’s plan fix those? The Delhi government proposed spraying farms with free bio-decomposer to reduce stubble burning. Farmers burn stubble to quickly and cheaply clear their fields as the gap between paddy harvest and wheat sowing is only 10-14 days. This year, because of an extended monsoon, that gap is even smaller. Farmers complain that the decomposer needs about three weeks to work and adds to their costs. So, Punjab reportedly adopted the decomposer on less than 1% of its paddy acreage. Neighbour☐ing Haryana fared better by significantly decreasing its stubble burning by helping farmers access stubble management machinery (like balers), using the biodecomposer and making burning financially less attractive. It was not nearly enough. On November 3, when Delhi’s pollution was hazardous, stubble burning accounted for a third of PM2.5 pollution.

Another item on the 15-point plan is deployment of 380 teams to ensure vehicles (especially older ones) don’t pollute, and help clear congestion. But with over 7 million active vehicles on the road, this will be hard to do. Electric mobility (EM) is heralded as a future messiah, but less than 10% of vehicles sold thus far in 2022 were electric. EM needs to scale up far more to make a dent on pollution. Could Delhi try something else? Mexico City, with air so foul that birds fell dead from the sky in 1992, cleaned up its air by improving its fuel quality and increasing public transport. While Delhi’s metro is a success, the capital needs better last-mile connectivity and bus network for shorter journeys. While Delhi appears to have reduced its congestion this year (as per the TomTom index), is that by banning vehicle entry and work/study-fromhome orders? These actions have costs.

To control dust, Delhi turns to smog guns (and plans to increase tree cover). While smog guns are very vis ible, studies place the impact of controlling dust from construction by barriers or fogging at less than 1%. As for green cover, while the forest department says it has increased, several experts put this down to flawed methodology and point instead to 77,000 trees having been felled or transplanted in the past few years. Transplanting trees is a dusty business. Having industries switch to gaseous fuels is an effective method of countering pollution, except that industries play a bigger role in summer pollution rather than in the winter spike.

Other actions, like shutting schools, are cruel in their irony. When a home has no fancy air purifier, and the child has no gadget or data to connect to class, who bears the pain of shutting schools and who reaps the benefit? Banning waste burning, while effective, hurts the poorest, who have few other options for staying warm. Are we acting against only ‘weak’ polluters? Also, banning some things while letting others go (relatively) unpunished makes people less likely to follow rules overall.

Remember London, Los Angeles, Beijing, and Mexico City have each fought against air pollution and won. Their battles began with a good understanding and agreement on what caused the pollution and was clinched with public support (or brute power in China) for strong action against polluters. In India, I sympathise with our political leaders. Stopping farmers from burning stubble is, politically, a Herculean task, since thousands of crores are spent annually to subsidise a crop pattern that encourages it. It’s hard to reduce vehicular pollution by making more space for buses in roads, when that hurts powerful people who drive cars. Taking such ing to narrow interests. It is a coming-of-age moactions means prioritising health for all over catersustained public attention. But since public attenment in democracies. One predictor of this turn is tion on pollution has flagged even as Delhi’s air quality improved from ‘hazardous’ to ‘very unhealthy’, don’t hold your breath for brave political action. Expect more deck chairs to be shuffled.

Mridula Ramesh is a climate and water expert and author of Watershed: How We Destroyed India’s Water and How We Can Save It and The Climate Solution

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