Ms Navdha Malhotra, campaign manager, Purpose Campaigns, talks on pollution in Delhi and about the clean air campaign.
The Optimist: Is air pollution in Delhi really alarming, or it is just hype?
Navdha Malhotra: It’s definitely not hype. Delhi has topped the World Health Organization’s list of the most-polluted cities of the world for a few years now. Delhi’s air pollution isn’t just a winter problem; we also breathe unhealthy and dirty air all the year round.
The Optimist: Why are modern-day metropolises most susceptible to air pollution?
Navdha Malhotra: It’s mostly because of unplanned and uncontrolled growth. Cities are growing unchecked, leading to a massive increase in construction sites and transport emissions; biomass burning on farmlands and wood-burning in homes. But poor implementation of policies and a lack of planning are the biggest culprits of Delhi’s air pollution.
The Optimist: Increasing vehicular traffic is considered one of the main reasons. Apart from the even-odd system, is there any other option for Delhi to minimize the pollution level?
Navdha Malhotra: Delhi’s air pollution is mostly due to vehicular emissions, industries, construction and dust. The Delhi government has a lot of policies in place which seem fine on paper, but are often poorly implemented — such as the GRAP (Graded Response Action Plan), Green Budget, Comprehensive Clean Air Action Plan, Solar Policy and so on.
We need to look at cleaner forms of energy to meet our needs. Delhi has an ambitious solar policy and we need to ensure that it is implemented in a timely manner.
The government needs to learn from China, where strict emission limits for industries were put in place. India came up with a December 2017 deadline for industries to implement emission standards, which gave two years’ time to power plants to get their act cleaned up. But the government went to court and got it extended. They asked for a seven-year extension, which has now come down to five. On the other hand, we closed down the Badarpur power plant, while setting up a new one in Khurja (80-100 km from Delhi).
Another solution is strengthening our public transport system — phasing out of diesel vehicles, shifting to electric vehicles powered by renewable energy, promoting shared mobility and proper footpaths for pedestrians and bike lanes for cyclists. We’re in the middle of a public health emergency and stringent emergency measures must be taken.
The Optimist: What role can the common people play?
Navdha Malhotra: From introducing simpler changes in their daily lives to coming out onto the streets and demanding an urgent solution from the government, citizens can do it all. Use public transport wherever possible; segregate waste and compost; avoid single-use plastic to reduce garbage burning, which is also a big source of air pollution; switching to solar electricity to power homes and offices and so forth. Citizens should also make use of the government mechanisms that are in place, such as the MCD app, through which one can lodge a complaint on construction dust and open garbage burning, among others.
The Optimist: What is the permissible benchmark for air pollution? Which diseases can arise from air pollution?
Navdha Malhotra: According to the Indian National Air Quality Index, an AQI of between 0-50 is deemed good and 51-100 satisfactory. The Indian standard for PM10 is 60 μg/cu.m and, for PM2.5, 40 μg/cu.m, whereas the WHO guidelines for PM10 is 20 μg/cu.m and, for PM2.5, 10 μg/cu.m.
Air pollution can cause serious diseases, such as lung cancer, stroke, respiratory infections, heart diseases and aggravated asthma, among others. If pregnant women are exposed to ambient air pollution, it can affect childbirth, resulting in low weight and premature birth. Emerging evidence also suggests that ambient air pollution may affect diabetes and neurological development in children.
The Optimist: What is the future of the campaign?
Navdha Malhotra: The campaign will continue to push for cleaner and more sustainable public transport; increase in adoption of renewable energy, such as solar power, by the government and consumers; and issuing of government health advisories. It isn’t always possible for citizens to comprehend the AQI and what PM2.5 levels mean and how these impact our health. Simpler, easy-to-understand health advisories are one way of increasing public awareness and ensuring that citizens can take the necessary precautions.
The Optimist: What is the response till now?
Navdha Malhotra: ‘Help Delhi Breathe’ is currently in its third phase and the campaign has been successful in shifting the air pollution debate from media conversations to citizens being mobilized and demanding solutions for clean air. We’re carrying out one of the largest clean air campaigns in India and our focus is on public engagement through online and offline actions. We also work closely with the government and other policy-makers to ensure urgent and efficient policy implementation. The most recent instance of this was witnessed when the Delhi government approved 1,000 electric buses for the capital and 905 electric feeder buses for the Delhi Metro to enable cleaner last-mile connectivity.