Delhi: A Horrifying Tale of COVID-19 and Air Pollution

Smog in Delhi During Winter Season/Image Credit: Mark Danielson

On 7th November 2020, an Indian Medical Association (IMA) official in an interview with NDTV said that 13 percent of the new COVID-19 cases in Delhi are directly linked to air pollution.

Though this was the story of last year, the situation is more or less going to be the same this year. In the upcoming winter season, Delhi might again be going to face this dual challenge when it is speculated to face the third or fourth COVID-19 wave. And with the current outlook and its unpreparedness for the second wave, the question arises, “Is Delhi ready for this dual challenge?”

And the even bigger question is “Is North India ready for this dual challenge?”

And the answer, as you have might guess, is a big NO.

But given the five months’ time window, Delhi and all other North Indian states still have a chance to pull off this tedious task. How? Let’s understand.

Find Alternatives For Parali Burning

We all know the air quality of the Delhi-NCR region throughout the year, but the parali (stubble) burning chokes the region even more. It is further intensified by other natural phenomena such as wind. One cannot fully blame the farmers for parali burning, but governments across the region should make efforts to provide alternatives for parali burning.

  • Waste Decomposer (Immediate)
The National Centre for Organic Farming (NCOF) has developed a “Waste Decomposer” which can decompose 10000 metric tons of bio-waste in 30 days. This should be made readily available across the region along with an awareness program on how to use the technology.
  • Rely on Technology (Immediate to Mid Term)
The use of newer farm technologies such as stubble cutter and happy seeder should be employed. Though these machines could be a costly affair, these can be purchased at Gram Panchayat levels and can be employed under the direction of Sarpanch and other Gram Panchayat heads, fixing the responsibility.
  • Providing Monetary Incentives (Mid to Long Term)
Though this seems a long-term solution providing a solution based on monetary incentives can work much better than the above solution. The bio-waste can be converted into animal feed, manure, cardboard, and even bio-degradable cutlery. Some subsidies could be provided to establish Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to explore these ventures.
Source: Centre for Science and Environment

Clean up the Roads

According to a study done by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, road dust is the biggest culprit for Delhi’s bad air. It accounts for 38 percent of particulates, which is a staggering 18 percentage points more than the next big cause, the vehicular pollution particulates (20 percent). In layman’s terms, it means there is 380 gram of road dust for every kilo of air pollutants. So it would be wise to first work on the road dust.

  • Reduce the speed (Immediate)
It is noticed that faster-moving vehicles stir up dust more than their slower counterparts. The rationalization of speed limits across Delhi-NCR would help in reducing the particulate movement.
  • Regularly Washing the Roads (Immediate)
A single road wash can help in reducing the road dirt significantly, but it will be only effective for an hour or day depending on the weather. So authorities should work on regularly washing the roads.
  • Trees are friends (Mid to Long Term)
Trees not only work as natural oxygen suppliers, but they also work as windbreaks. Windbreaks are barriers designed to reduce the speed and redirect the flow of winds. There are hundreds of road stretches in Delhi-NCR with no single tree. A number of studies have shown that windbreaks can reduce both air and noise pollution. Read here and here.

Tackle the Vehicular Pollution

With the COVID-19 pandemic and dismal public transport in sight, a large number of people are expected to switch to their own personal vehicles, but this should not deter us. Delhi’s Electrical Vehicle policy is one such great step. Other steps could be

  • Promotion of Better Fuel (Immediate)
For time being, authorities could altogether ban the sales of diesel and petrol vehicles and promote the sale of CNG and Electrical vehicles only, till the situation is not under control.
  • Install the Smog Towers (Immediate)
Delhi needs to install smog towers across the city. Smog towers can greatly help in improving the air quality in areas with high traffic, dense populations, schools, hospitals, and industries. Looking at the current situation, hospitals and industrial areas should be prioritized.
Common people of Delhi-NCR still travel through the bus. All the governments across NCR should procure buses immediately. The focus should be more on the procurement of Non-AC buses as they provide better ventilation and much affordable than AC buses.

Make People Aware

Domestic sources, Hotels/restaurants along Municipal Solid Waste burning make up the next 18 percent of particulate concentration. I have grouped them together as the major component of the pollution across all these three categories is the burning of solid waste, which can be only worked out by making the public aware.l

  • Ban on Garbage Burning (Immediate)

People should be made aware of the ill effects of garbage burning. It has been seen a number of sanitation workers also burn the garbage due to unawareness or incompetence. There should be a fine on garbage burning.

All the Governments should also be trained and prepare Fire Departments across Delhi-NCR to tackle sudden fires in landfill areas as these landfill fires cause more pollution than domestic fires and they are also not easy to control. It is observed that there is a spike in cases of landfill fires and oddly in the winter season. Read here and here and here.

  • Use of Better Cooking Fuel (Immediate to Mid Term)

A large population across the Delhi-NCR still lives in rural areas and they still burn traditional fuels like wood and coal. People should be made aware of better cooking fuel alternatives. They should be urged to switch to LPG, Solar, and Electricity.

  • Ban on Coal Altogether (Immediate)

There should be a complete ban on the sale of coal for domestic use or in the hotel industry. Strict action should be taken on people who are engaged in the sale and use of coal for domestic purposes.

Focus on Necessary

For time being, unnecessary industrial, construction, and other polluting activities should be stopped.

  • Stop the Construction Work (Immediate)

Construction along with concrete batching accounts for 8 percent of total Delhi’s air pollution. For time being, all activities should be stopped whether they are commercial and governmental. Public health should come first.

  • Switch to Clean Energy (Immediate to Long Term)

For time being, the thermal power plants across the Delhi-NCR should be made to switch natural gas from coal immediately. Long-term solutions can be worked accordingly.

  • Ban Fire Crackers (Immediate)

Ban fire crackers across Delhi-NCR. Orders should be passed on an immediate basis. So that an awareness program can be run and masses don’t feel dejected during these trying times.

With all said, the above task cannot be completed without the cooperation of all government agencies and non-government agencies across the Delhi-NCR region.


  1. Here Delhi and Delhi-NCR are used interchangeably, but the application of these terms is applied to the whole Delhi-NCR region. Delhi-NCR encompasses districts of Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.
  2. I have added tags (Immediate, Mid Term, and Long Term) on the basis of implementation.