Has Delhi Reached The Environmental Limits Of Economic Growth?

The government might have to take measures to depopulate the city or considerably slow its population growth.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Representative image. (Source: Unsplash)</p></div>
Representative image. (Source: Unsplash)

For the first time since I arrived in Delhi about 40 years ago, I skipped winter in the city for two months expressly to avoid air pollution and stayed in a coastal town. I would have been away longer if I could have helped it. This would have been unimaginable about 10 years ago. I loved Delhi winters—the chill, the fog, the charcoal fires and aromas wafting from tandoors. But the charm is now clouded by smog: thermal inversion makes Delhi a chamber of toxic gases and particles in winter.

Is it possible that Delhi has reached the environmental limits of growth? The National Capital Region is still the most attractive investment destination in the whole of north India. Delhi alone got $28.3 billion in foreign equity inflows between October 2019 and September 2023, to rank fourth after Maharashtra, Karnataka and Gujarat. This excludes foreign equity invested in enterprises in Gurgaon, Faridabad, Noida, Ghaziabad and other cities of the capital region. It has a huge pool of talent and offers plenty of opportunities for those wanting to start or advance in their careers. It’s an education hub and a large market. While politically, the boundaries of the NCR are set, the gravitational pull of urbanisation can draw more towns into its orbit.  

Because of weak industrialisation around it, the capital region attracts vast numbers of migrants. In each of the decades between 1961 and 2001, the population of the union territory or state of Delhi increased by around 50%. There was a steep decline in growth in the 2001-11 decade to 21%, which the state’s economic survey attributed to the growth of satellite cities.

The United Nation’s 2018 report on world urbanisation prospects, projected the population of the ‘urban agglomeration’ of Delhi in 2015 at 26 million, higher than that of the Mumbai agglomeration (19 million) and the Kolkata region (14 million). It projected population in these cities to be respectively 35 million, 22 million and 16 million by 2025. In other words, incremental population growth in the Delhi region over a period of 10 years was set to be three times as high as that of the Mumbai cluster.

More people means more use of cooking, motor and industrial fuels—and more emissions. As of end March 2020, Delhi, Faridabad and Ghaziabad had 19.1 million registered motor vehicles. The number plying in the capital region would be much more as the list in the road transport ministry’s annual report is only of vehicles registered in cities with population of more than a million. So, vehicles registered in cities in the capital region like Noida or Gurgaon are not included. This is more than the vehicles registered in Greater Mumbai, Kalyan, Thane and Vasai as of that date: 7.51 million.

Shifting to cleaner fuels has not helped. In 1995, lawyer MC Mehta moved the Supreme Court seeking directions to the government to minimise the health risks caused by vehicular emissions. Consequently, only unleaded petrol was sold in the city by 1998. By the end of 2002, the city’s bus fleet was converted to compressed natural gas. Autorickshaws and taxis followed. Delhi also has 392 km of metro rail network. According to a Delhi Metro press statement, it had 6.7 lakh daily passengers on average last October, accounting for 30% of total passenger km travelled This is 30% of total passenger km, and higher than the share of buses—18%. Citing a study, the statement says Delhi Metro averted the emission of more than 7 lakh tonne of CO2 and 73 tonne of fine particles in 2022.

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Under Supreme Court orders, polluting industries were forced out of the capital. Coal-based power plants in the city have closed down. From the beginning of 2022, industries in the capital region were barred from using coal. Their annual consumption was at least 1.4 million tonne, the Centre for Science and Environment—an environmental activist group—reported in an article. For cooking, the residents of Delhi have to use gas or electricity. Kerosene is not available, even in ration shops.

Despite these measures, Delhi’s air quality has worsened and continues to be unhealthy. Though the daily average air quality index has improved slightly since 2018, it continues to be in the ‘poor’ category, albeit on the lower side—except in 2020, when it was in the ‘moderate’ category because of pandemic-related enforced immobility. The number of ‘poor’ to ‘severe’ category days were 159 last year, a reduction of 43 days compared to 2002. The daily average concentration of particles of size 10 microns and below was double the national standards—which are laxer than the World Health Organisation’s safe limits—and that of 2.5 micron particles more than twice the nationally determined safe levels. 

The improvement in air quality has been achieved at a high cost. Diesel vehicles older than 10 years and petrol vehicles aged 15 years cannot operate in the capital. Even those that passed the grade had to be parked for many days on two occasions this winter when air quality worsened. Construction activity was also halted. 

The point is there are just too many petrol and diesel-fuelled private vehicles in the city. Even buses, taxis and autos that run on gas emit health-harming oxides of nitrogen. An improvement in air quality may have to await changeover of all vehicles to gas or electric. But one will still have to reckon with road dust and the wear and tear of millions of tyres. Delhi is a sprawl. To reach a destination, one usually has to take multiple modes of transport. Though it has mostly low-rises, it is very densely packed. Increased use of public transport will require the capital region to replace low-rises with high-rises along transport corridors. But that will mean more construction, and unless building practices improve tonnes of dust will be dispersed in the air.

Widespread poverty also contributes to worsening air quality in winter. Those out in the open burn charcoal or wood to keep themselves warm when the chill sets in. Biomass burning contributed about 28% to the load of PM (particulate matter) 2.5 during three cold days this month, according to the R-Aasman dashboard of the Delhi Pollution Control Committee.

The government might have to take measures to depopulate the city or considerably slow its population growth. Ill health might do it for the city otherwise. A well-known pulmonologist says he has not seen a pink lung in his city hospital for many years. And the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago says in its India Fact Sheet that people in NCR lose 11.9 years of their life because of air pollution. Isn’t that too high a price for economic growth?

Vivian Fernandes is a journalist with more than three decades of practice.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of NDTV Profit or its editorial team.