Delhi Air Pollution Crisis: Learning from others

Delhi is witnessing unprecedented levels of particulate matter leading to a serious health hazard for its inhabitants. Similar health emergencies have emerged in different parts of the world at different times. What lessons can India learn from the international community? Give an example.

Curbing air pollution is a serious problem that demands long-term, multi-pronged solutions along with emergency measures. Mexico City is one example where a comprehensive plan helped the city tackle the pollution crisis.

Mexico City was declared the most polluted city in the world by the United Nations in 1992. It was especially vulnerable to the ill-effects of pollution due to its geographical location. The city is located in a valley that prevents the escape of poisonous gases. It was for this reason that a sustainable urban ecosystem plan which included both long term and emergency short term measures was rolled out by the government. The city adopted a slew of measures some of which are stated below:

Long-term permanent measures:
  • Compulsory use of catalytic converters in every car
  • Mandatory verification of car emissions every six months
  • Improvement of public transportation including the expansion of metro lines, a bus rapid transit system (the Metrobus), a bike sharing programme, etc.
  • A road space rationing strategy called “Hoy No Circula” (a day without a car) was started by civil society and later adopted by the government. The plan restricts the circulation of cars one day per week depending on the last number of their license plates.
  • Recently the Mexico City government signed an agreement with 12 other cities in the C40 group, to procure only zero-emission buses by 2025 and ensure that the city is fossil fuel free by 2030.
  • Back in the early 1990s, when the crisis reached its peak in Mexico City, one of the most important steps was the relocation of heavy industry to outside the city limits(like the the “18 of March” refinery which was dismantled and replaced by a park), and the enforcement of stringent standards regarding emissions.
Short-term emergency measures:
  • A two-phase “Programme for Atmospheric Environmental Contingency” was also created in case of serious spikes in the levels of pollutants. Phase 1 is declared when the levels of cross a certain threshold. With Phase 1, the authorities set in motion actions to protect the health of citizens in four different categories, namely, recommendations, transportation, services, and industries.
  • Schools and government institutions are expected to cease all outdoors activities, civic and recreational.
  • Citizens are advised that exercising outdoors represents a health hazard.
  • Healthcare professionals are on alert to receive vulnerable patients and are responsible for spreading information.
  • Some vehicles are further restricted to circulate for a certain period of time.
  • All activities pertaining to paving, transit painting, and any public works that hinder fluid transit are prohibited, as well as all burning of firewood or coal.
  • Several industries are forced to reduce their operations to a certain level. All these measures and many others are suspended until pollution descends to the prescribed levels, even if it takes some days, or even some weeks.

The emergency plan was used by Mexico to shield vulnerable groups from intense exposure to pollutants, as well as to generate awareness among the population about the health risks that extreme air pollution poses. Delhi also needs to replicate such a plan. It needs to do more than “the odd even scheme” and shutting schools for a few days. There is a need for a comprehensive plan that not only keeps in perspective the cyclic nature of the problem but also brings together all the stakeholders involved in the problem.