Whether or not Delhi is the world’s most polluted city, it is an incontrovertible fact that, together with several other Indian cities, Delhi’s air pollution level far exceeds the limits for risk to human health, and the situation has been grave for many years now. In Delhi and Calcutta, for instance, lung cancer and other pulmonary ailments, and the number of children with asthma, are on the rise primarily because of the quality of air in these cities. This crisis is so severe in most cities, suburbs and towns in India that the contamination of water or food, or noise pollution, are usually not mentioned in the same breath, although each of these merit separate and urgent thinking through and action. So, it is absurd when some scientists and representatives of the government lock horns with the World Health Organization’s Ambient Air Pollution Report of 2014, as to whether Delhi or Beijing is more polluted, or where exactly Indian cities ought to be placed in the league of the most dangerous and how such ranks ought to be computed. Most of the finer points of statistics are more or less incomprehensible to ordinary Indian citizens, who suffer in very concrete and comprehensible terms the particulate matter that these figures and positions try to calibrate and compare. What the WHO report makes indisputably clear is that India will have to take very quick action on air pollution, and this is something that both the State, whoever takes its helm, and the citizenry will have to pull off jointly.
Since vehicular pollution is the most important element of air pollution in India, perhaps the best place to start, in the cities, would be with the use of private vehicles and the state of public transport. The politics of populism, mixed with apathy, ignorance and corruption, is probably the worst hindrance to implementing the regulations already in place regarding pollution control in private vehicles. But restricting the use of private vehicles, the numbers of which are growing exponentially in the Indian cities as a result of ‘development’, can work only when public-transport alternatives are of a standard that would be acceptable to people who usually drive around in their own cars and two-wheelers. Attitudes to the bicycle-owners and pedestrians must also change, and the convenience of both actively fostered by municipal authorities.