Delhi’s Ongoing Battle with Peaking Air Pollution: Analysing Government Policies

Authors: Anusha Arif and Neha Maria Benny

Delhi-NCR’s air quality hit the ‘400’ danger mark on the AQI 500 scale, considered hazardous once again in the early part of November 2023. The coming festivities on Diwali, despite the ban coupled with a surge in farm fires, are expected to escalate the issue in the coming weeks.
According to the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) report of 2023 by the University of Chicago, the air quality in Delhi shortens the lives of the city’s residents by 11.9 years. The health implications of increased pollution can be felt by all age groups of people with a sudden increase in cases of headaches, anxiety, irritation, confusion and decrement of cognitive abilities while also posing an aggravated risk to those with breathing problems.
In the midst of this, the government of Delhi has announced that the primary schools will remain closed till the 10th of November. The Supreme Court recently gave strict directions to the governments of Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana to stop stubble burning by farmers. The capital, consistently featured in the most polluted cities in the world, is affected by multiple contributors to air pollution. These include paddy straw stubble burning in neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana, traffic congestion, construction as well as illegal industrial activities. The highest polluting cluster of small-scale industries in India which do not meet limits on air, water or soil emissions, according to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), is in Delhi. Over 3,100 industries are located across NCR, even though multiple polluting industries were moved out of Delhi in the 1990s. 
Policy measures & action plans

The issue of air pollution in Delhi NCR first came to light in 1995 through a  PIL filed by environmentalist and lawyer M.C. Mehta. The Supreme Court had, in an order in 1995, determined that the Delhi Pollution Control Committee was solely responsible for controlling the pollution in Delhi.

Annual average PM2.5 concentrations in Delhi from 1989 to 2022, no. of operational continuous ambient air quality stations reporting PM2.5 concentrations in Delhi and data available as % of 15 min points available in that year; What is Polluting Delhi’s Air? A review from 1990 to 2022. Sustainability 2023. 15(5). 4209.

Over the last three decades, pollution from other sources has worsened even though there has been improvement in vehicular emissions because of CNG conversions of public transport around the early 2000s. The Delhi government has introduced various policy measures to curb air pollution challenges in the region. The success and failure of some of these have been discussed as follows:

1. CNG Public Transport systems and Electric Buses

During the 1990s, a significant contributor to Delhi air pollution was vehicular emission, which constituted 70% of the total share. This led to the Supreme Court’s order to switch its public transit system to cleaner-burning fuel; the government of New Delhi converted its entire fleet of diesel and gasoline-dependent public transport systems to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) around the early 2000s

The move led to a dramatic shift in the Delhi air in the following years. However, over the last two decades, the advantages of CNG have been lost. The problems on the rise since the 2010s are the increase in diesel vehicles and an overall increase in the number of private vehicles in the city. Since 2000, the number of private cars registered in Delhi has increased nearly threefold, from 0.92 million units in 2000 to 3.38 million units in 2020. The increase in the number of private vehicles somewhat negated the progress of CNG. However, the push for a well-integrated public transport system has been made by the Delhi government to minimise the use of private vehicles; the government has also announced that by 2025, there will be 8000 e-buses, which will be further expanded to an entire 100% electric fleet by 2028.
2. Odd and Even scheme

The Delhi government had once again announced the implementation of the odd-even scheme that permits cars to operate on alternate days based on their odd or even number plates between November 13 and 20, 2023. However, owing to recent rainfall that brought down pollution levels significantly, the government recalled the implementation of the scheme. The scheme has previously been implemented in 2016 and 2019 with exemptions including CNG-run cabs, cars driven by women, electric & hybrid vehicles and two-wheelers. 
Regarding the success and failure of this scheme, it is highly debatable. While some reports suggest that the AQI decreased significantly in places where the odd-even scheme was in place, others indicate that the formula had barely any impact on vehicular pollution in its first implementation in January 2016. The primary attributable reasons for this failure, as identified, are a sharp rise in the exempted vehicles and people shifting their travel schedule beyond the 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. restrictions.

3. Commission of Air Quality Management backed by CAQM Act  2021

An airshed is a region where the movement of air, as well as the dispersion and concentration of airborne pollutants, is significantly influenced by local geographical and meteorological conditions. The Parliament enacted the Commission for Air Quality Management in NCR and Adjoining Areas (CAQM) Act 2021, which addresses the shift into an airshed-level governance that involves regulating and improving air quality within a watershed or basin. The CAQM has passed necessary directives to tackle stubble burning, among other initiatives, inviting suggestions from the public and experts in the field. However, there has been a 15 per cent decrease in Budget Allocation for CAQM in 2022-23, which will likely restrict its functioning and discourage it from expanding its composition. Moreover, it reflects poorly on the political will towards air quality and pollution.
4. Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP)
GRAP is an emergency action plan implemented in four stages depending on the severity of air pollution in the Delhi NCR. The stages under the ‘poor’ category include a ban on garbage burning, implementation of dust mitigation measures, regular collection of municipal solid waste, etc. (stage I). The second and the third stages ban diesel generators, the use of coal or firewood in hotels, increase bus & metro frequency and a strict ban on construction and demolition activities, respectively. The fourth stage, which is currently being implemented when the air quality is in ‘severe plus’ or ‘hazardous’ is to stop the entry of trucks in Delhi except for CNG/LNG, imposing a ban on Delhi-registered diesel-operated medium and heavy goods vehicles. The action plan is a responsive measure to mitigate further deterioration of the air quality in the region.


Despite various interventions, Delhi was named the most polluted capital in the world in 2022. One major concern with the government is that most of Delhi’s pollution control measures are reactive. While limiting pollution in the capital is essential for when it hits the ‘severe’ category, it is now fundamental to adopt policies & measures to limit pollution year-round.  Moreover, there is a need to introduce all-round measures to limit the escalation of pollution in the NCR region around the winter months. The rapid and unbridled urbanisation requirement due to a large and increasing population in the capital city is juxtaposed with capping pollution levels. In this scenario, the push of the Delhi government needs to be on developing a policy that deters climate-negative behaviour and unsustainable consumption while driving public transport systems to their maximum holding capacity along with focusing on resolving inter-state issues of stubble burning.