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?

My Journey of Systems Thinking – VII

When is systems thinking not useful?

I have been asking myself this question very often, off late, because I think that thinking in systems has not always helped me take actions. But this is not a short coming of the subject but rather a personality trait associated with me. However, I think that one has to be aware of this trap of “inaction” in name of believing that the “system” is the problem. I will try to elaborate a bit.

For most time of the past ten years I have been thinking of real world systemic solutions and the top three things that come to my mind are: Local Economics (having local currencies), Self Sustaining Energy and Ecosystems Based Adaptation. If someone asks me what is the solution to all the environmental and economic problems we are facing today, I would simply go back to these three solutions (using different vocabulary). However, if they probe me further on how they could take small actions in their daily life to contribute to environment or sustainability, I am often at loss of words or ideas. Quickly I fall back to the regular options – use LEDs, shift to 5 star rated appliances, use efficient flush (in bathroom), segregate waste etc. But deep down these are not the things that I would consider as real solutions part of my daily life, if other meta things remained constant as they are today i.e. the problem of money and economics, un-sustainability of alternate energy systems, poor governance of fresh water etc.

So I conveniently let go all my efforts to practice some basic things in my daily life, like listed above. This does not mean that I don’t think they contribute to change but then I think that the system is the problem and unless we start developing or redefining systems, all our small efforts are not going to produce the big change that we wish to see in this world. This is a kind of “systems” trap. Where our desire to see big changes drives inaction towards small steps that one could take. As systems thinkers we have to be careful and mindful that we have to work at all levels simultaneously i.e. we have to sometimes apply the quick fix (change lights), work with people to help them see the patterns (how air pollution has become a recurring problem), evaluate the policy/governance structures that are causing the recurrence of these patterns even while personal awareness is going up (long distance travel is a must considering the cities becoming metro towns, farmer’s inability to recycle the agriculture waste back into the soil because the market turnaround time for agriculture produce is shorter these days etc.), also then reflect on the mental models/beliefs of people, that give rise to such structures (market, economy etc.) i.e. why people think the way they think, what are their untested assumptions, and then finally become aware that it is the shared vision of the society in which we are born and most of our mental models emerges from this societal vision (eg. growth is prosperity).

As systems thinkers we should not be choosy on what are the things that we would want to work upon. Say only public policy or teaching or awareness generation etc. We cannot get into the trap of exclusion while wanting to create a change at a system level.

I am facing this difficulty of trying to focus while also being alive to all the changes happening around me and how I could be a part of it. If I am not then I am being very non systemic in my approach.