One of the basic essentials for life on Earth is its atmosphere. The atmosphere is like a giant gaseous blanket. Not only does it protect us from harmful radiations, it supports life through a delicate balancing of various gases (O2, CO2). There are places on Earth which act as a sink for CO2 such as Amazons, Western Ghats, The Andamans, and then there are places such as Delhi.
Delhi wasn’t always like this. Look at this video documentary of Delhi shot in 1938. The cleanliness, space, the people, the air; everything looks so clean, tidy, elegant. You wish to visit that Delhi. Here is a picture of today’s Delhi.
Okay, the picture might be misleading as it was probably taken on a busy day. Still, it straightaway shows things that have gone wrong since independence. The biggest problem is “the people”. India’s population was around 31crores in 1941. We are at least 125 crores now. That is a staggering jump. To make things even more difficult, most of this population pressure has fallen onto megacities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai. None of these 5 is doing great in terms of air quality. However, Delhi is doing much worse. It’s so bad that you can safely declare Delhi as the worst megacity in the world in terms of air quality.
What is the cause of such a condition of Delhi? Population pressure cannot be a single factor. There are megacities with higher population pressures (Tokyo) doing fine. The answer is unsustainable growth and urbanisation of NCR. Apart from New Delhi, most of the regions in NCR have grown to meet demands. Environmental sustainability was never a priority. In the next paragraph, I will try to create a short picture of this unsustainable growth of Delhi.
Have you ever tried to go to Noida from Gurugram in the evenings? Have you ever seen the large skylines of Gurugram, all covered in attractive glass shields? Have you ever tried to walk on a typical road in New Delhi?
Going to Noida from Gurugram, you will see fancy four-wheelers. Many of them, however, having only 1 or 2 passengers. All of them are running their air conditioners. The average speed of vehicles isn’t more than 20kmph. 1000s of vehicles within a single km stretch. There are traffic jams everywhere. 1000s of litres of diesel is burning every minute. Imagine the condition of a person walking by the side of the road (mostly, there is no place left on the road to walk in such traffic jams).
Look at these buildings.
These big, beautiful, glossy office buildings are classic examples of unsustainable, unplanned construction. Glass is very good at trapping heat. As a result, these glossy buildings requires 24*7 air conditioning. The sites of these buildings are mostly free of any kind of greenery and trees. Each of these buildings consumes more power than the whole colony of my hometown.
New Delhi roads seem to be in excellent conditions. The footpaths, pavements are all concretized. However, when you actually walk on these roads, you will probably have to cover your face to protect yourself from dust. That’s the thing with concretization. The dust never gets settled. It persists for years.
The conditions I have described are quite common in many megacities. But things in Delhi are extreme. To add to that, the geographical location of Delhi also doesn’t help. Whether we burn fossil fuels or not, whether we burn wastes or not; even if we stop every human activity around, Delhi will face thick fogging conditions this time of the year. That’s a meteorological event. Fog formation requires nuclei (particles). Delhi provides a large variety of such particles. Almost all of these particles are dangerous for our health, some more dangerous than others. As a result, the fog formation in Delhi leads to suspension of dangerous gaseous particles in the air. These particles persist due to fogging conditions and air quality becomes worse manifold. It’s not that air quality is good in say April or May. But this time of the year, the air acts as a suspension and particles are trapped.
What can be done to improve the situation?
The whole NCR needs to develop world-class waste management. The surrounding states should also invest in the processing of paddy stubble instead of burning them. Every kind of manufacturing industry needs to be shifted from NCR to coastal areas of the country. Every kind of activities that can lead to the release of harmful particles in the atmosphere needs to be checked. Public transportation needs to be improved. Battery, CNG vehicles and cycles need to be promoted and heavy taxes levied on diesel and petrol vehicles. Tree plantation should be promoted even in offices and residential towers. Innovative solutions such as urban agriculture should be tested.
I am afraid that even these steps will not be enough to cure Delhi’s air (it will certainly improve present conditions). The reason being, the NCR resources (roads, buildings, trees, etc.) are not good and sufficient enough to provide a sustainable, green and healthy lifestyle for such a large population. The only permanent solution is de-urbanisation of NCR and shifting many of its services to other cities (preferably coastal). Decreasing population and energy pressure will allow nature to recover from our years of exploiting and polluting acts. Does any of you seriously thinks this can happen? Of course not. In fact, I only see things getting worse as the population is ever increasing, so is the number of vehicles and energy consumption.
So, what should you do to provide yourself with a healthy lifestyle if you’re in NCR?
Just pack-up your things and leave.