In today’s Finshots, we talk about Delhi’s deteriorating air quality and what the city has been doing about it.

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The Story

Google “Best time to visit Delhi” and it’ll probably tell you October’s a great time. The weather’s cooler and you can soak up all the historical sights the city has to offer without the sun sucking the energy out of you.

But here’s what the internet might not be telling you…

October might be pretty horrible for your health. Because that’s when air pollution gets pretty bad. Yup, right now, Delhi’s topping the Air Quality Index (AQI) charts. Not in a good way, mind you. Think of the AQI as a yardstick that runs from 0 to 500. The higher the number, the greater the level of air pollution and hence greater the health concern. In general, an AQI value of 50 or lower means good air quality. While an AQI value of over 400 implies hazardous air quality.

Why does this happen?

Well, there’s the usual suspects. There’s stubble burning — this is when farmers in the neighbouring areas deliberately set their fields on fire. And they do this to get rid of the remnants of their previous crop quickly. They don’t have a lot of time before the next sowing season kicks in and they resort to burning the leftover as fast as possible. Also, people lay blame on the onset of the festive season and the associated fireworks celebrations. And then the climatic conditions kick in — the winds disappear and the pollutants just get locked up in the air. The AQI drops drastically.

So when the AQI began to drop precipitously this year, Delhi got into action. They implemented GRAP or the Graded Response Action Plan.

What’s that, you ask?

Well, GRAP dates back to 2016 when Delhi was facing a crisis. Pollutants had engulfed the city and visibility and air quality had deteriorated sharply. It was the worst smog in two decades and it was dubbed 'The Great Smog of Delhi'. The city had to do something.

So it created an action plan and called it GRAP. Basically, the city would prohibit certain activities depending on the level of air quality. Remember the odd-even rule where cars ending with an even registration number could only be taken out on the roads on certain days and odd-numbered cars on the others? Yeah, things like that. It would ban the use of diesel generators. It would put a halt to fireworks. It would stop burning garbage. And if that didn’t help, the city would hike parking fees to discourage people from taking their rides out. Or even increase the frequency of public transport like buses and metros.

Even the Supreme Court gave this a green signal.

So, did it work?

Well, not quite. You see, a non-profit called the Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment (LIFE) conducted an analysis between 2017 and 2021 and didn’t find any improvement in the overall air quality. And the reason was simple. GRAP didn’t care about all kinds of pollutants. It only focused on certain particulate matters — PM2.5 and PM10. Now that’s not a bad thing. Because particulate matter is pollution at the end of the day. They’re tiny particles of dust and smoke that hang around in the air. And that causes health problems as well. But the thing is, AQI measurements include a whole host of other air pollutants too such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2), and carbon monoxide (CO). And since GRAP’s action plan didn’t include keeping track of the levels of these pollutants, if these rose in value, GRAP simply did not come into effect. So sure, GRAP might’ve helped with reducing PM2.5 and PM10 pollution in the air, but that didn’t necessarily translate into a better AQI.

And not to forget, GRAP had its implementation flaws too. Some action plans such as increasing the frequency of public transport or hiking parking fees were either not implemented or delayed because of slow administrative decisions.

And maybe the folks in power realised this. Because within a few years, they made changes to GRAP.

For starters, the measurement began to include the other pollutants which we mentioned earlier — SO2 and NO2. It would be more comprehensive. Then, they decided that they wouldn’t wait for AQI to drop. If the air quality forecast began to indicate that things would get worse, they’d begin to implement various stages of GRAP. And finally, they tightened the rules. For instance, if the earlier plan banned the use of firewood in restaurants under Stage 2, they’d make things stricter and ban the practice under Stage 1 of the plan itself.

So will all this finally result in giving credibility to the Google result saying “Winter is the best time to visit Delhi”?

Well, we don’t know about that yet. All we can say is that in 2022, Delhi seems to have registered the best average daily AQI since 2018 (barring Covid-affected 2020). And it does seem like maybe GRAP 2.0 is turning out to make a little bit of a difference.

But let’s see how 2023 turns out before we come to some sort of conclusion, eh?

Until then…

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