Delhi’s Air Pollution: The Unsolvable Problem

Disclaimer: Non Scientific Post.

There is one difficulty when we are trying to solve common problems – That we are trying to solve a problem. I shall elaborate.

Delhi’s air quality has plummeted, as it usually does during times of Diwali and the onset of winters. Most of the pollution comes from neighboring places, specially the agriculture fields that burn the crop left overs. The wind brings the smoke to Delhi and NCR. Within NCR the pollution levels also vary depending on the local weather conditions. eg. Noida sometimes is more polluted. Then there are local pollutants within NCR – like Diesel Gensets, Vehicles, Power Plants, Construction, Dust etc. During times of Diwali the burning of firecrackers adds to this pollution resulting into a spike. Since the wind speeds are particularly low this spike in air pollution stays for a longer time, perhaps a week or 10 days. The single most important factor that makes Delhi/NCR’s air pollution the worst in the world is its local Weather Conditions and Meteorology. Comparatively, Mumbai and Kolkata being on the sea cost are blessed with sea breeze which can blow away the particulate matter every now and then. Plus, the rains also help in settling down the particulate matter. Delhi does not have the privilege of both such features. Hence, what comes to Delhi stays in Delhi.

Now comes the question of how do we solve the problem of Air Pollution in Delhi. I think this is the wrong question to ask. Because given current situation of the farmers who are burning the crop residues, people who are burning fire crackers, driving cars, companies constructing buildings and bridges etc. have a reason, perhaps valid, for doing these things. There is nothing wrong in the reasons for which they are doing what they are doing. Hence, there is nothing to be solved. If there is anything to be solved it is the symptom of high PM levels in the air. And we have solved it, not just in one way but in two: 1) Air Purifiers, 2) Face Masks. These two are the most popular solutions being practiced by people staying in Delhi/NCR (some idiots like me also turn on the AC). While some chose to temporarily leave NCR to avoid the severe pollution levels, others continue to live without air purifiers and face masks. All are coping. Then what is it that we are trying to solve?

The fundamental question to be asked is not “How to get things right” but rather “How to avoid doing wrong things”. We have chosen to burn fire crackers when the meteorology is not supportive of dispersing the particulate matter. Why? We have chosen to burn crop residues during times of winter when the meteorology is not supportive. Why? We have chosen to expand NCR and increase the activity levels beyond its meteorological carrying capacity. Why? We have chosen to solve the problem of air pollution by implementing quick fixes like air purifiers and face masks. Why? The cost of labor per acre of land to remove the crop residues is less than the cost of one air purifier, still no private investments are being made to manually remove it instead of burning. Why? We have chosen to privatize clean air by paying for purifiers and masks at the cost of deterioration of the commons. Why?

If we are continuing to do wrong things then what is there to solve? Isn’t this a paradox. I could be wrong here, but then I have a hypothesis on which I am basing my argument. What is yours?