cars delhi

A $3 billion pollution ‘solution’ in Delhi – but will it work?

Last week, the Ministry of Urban Development announced a Rs. 19,762 crore ($2.95 billion) solution to reduce vehicular pollution in Delhi. If approved, the proposal will seek to reduce emissions from the over 8.8 million vehicles in the city, mostly owned by the rising middle and upper classes.  Despite this class differential in vehicular emissions, some of the improvements sought include:

  • Seven pilot parking management districts
  • An integration of  207 metro stations with other forms of public transit systems
  • Construction of cycling tracks and footpaths with crossings at least every 250 meters, with first use of street space to pedestrians
  • Removal of choke points across the city
  • A procurement of 2,000 new buses immediately and 4,000 new buses in the next phase
  • Development of a Bus Rapid Transit System on high-density routes
  • Parking fees and congestion tax to discourage private vehicles

While several of these suggestions, namely parking management districts and imposing congestion taxes, may curb vehicle use, the rest of the plan largely ignores the intersection of class and the environment in the city. Academics such as Asher Ghertner and Sunalini Kumar have argued that past environmental efforts in Delhi have largely failed due to “bourgeois environmentalism” wherein middle class biases and interests take over environmental efforts that are genuinely in the public interest.

This may very well be the case with the Ministry’s air pollution proposals, which largely focus on bus and metro expansion. In today’s age, car ownership is no longer a practical necessity but rather a symbol of class, prestige, and status. In 2001, Delhi had 900,000 registered private cars. Today, there are more than 2.6 million. Though small in comparison to the city’s population, the increasing use of cars in a deeply congested city is unlikely to be deterred by  building new bus and metro routes. In fact, the Supreme Court acknowledged the problem in January when it asked DMRC to explore the option of creating a ‘premium‘ class service on the Delhi Metro to make the train seem more friendly for the wealthy.

We’ve already seen a big failure in convincing the middle class to use public transport through the Bus Rapid Transit system in 2008, which displaced cars from three lanes to two and dedicated a special lane to bus use. Rather than getting support, the BRT received a hugely negative and critical media campaign by middle-class journalists who lived in colonies along the route. Their complaints centered on the fact that the special bus route increased car travel times by 20 minutes or more, leading to inconveniences for car users. This argument went to the Supreme Court when an activist argued that the BRT system ignored the “wealth creators” of the city who preferred cars. It seems that these reactions to public transport have gone unnoticed in the latest proposals.

Also ignored are larger contributors to air pollution than cars—trucks and two-wheelers—which contribute to 24-25% and 18% of PM 2.5, respectively. Cars, on the other hand, contribute to 14-15%. While public transport may attract owners of two-wheelers, typically lower-middle class, it won’t make big progress in changing truck usage. Policies considering trucks and two-wheelers seem absent from the proposals.

Ultimately, Delhi’s air pollution solutions need a broader perspective and incentive model that accounts for the behaviors driving modes of transport. If Delhi is to curb pollution, it needs to create marketing and norms to get managers, CEOs, members of parliament, and other middle- or upper-class individuals to prioritize public transport. The idea is not as crazy as it sounds; such consumers readily take on public transport in cities like London and New York. However, behavioral nudges must come along-side policies that disincentive car ownership by higher costs to purchasing cars, especially second cars. A prime example is Singapore’s Vehicle Quota System, which makes vehicles 3-5 times the actual cost, thereby incentivizing people to use public transport. The same must go for two-wheelers, and strict environmental regulations must be put on exhaust of all vehicles, including trucks.

It’s time to create norms that are set for everyone, not just the poor. Just as lower-class auto drivers have been forced into using CNG to curb pollution, and over 3 million squatters have been evicted from their land for ‘polluting’ the land, it’s time to create policies that promote the middle- and upper-classes to create a better environment. Though increasing public transport is well-intentioned, it is not the answer. The Ministry of Urban Development must take into account deeper considerations of culture, behavior, and norms and use the increasingly expanding world of marketing and behavioral economics to change what is normal.



Feeling the heat? You’re feeling the pollution too.

Had trouble breathing lately? It might be because despite popular opinion, Delhi’s air pollution levels aren’t doing so great in the summer heat.

Our team regularly monitors air quality through the Air Quality Index Widget on our phone, which uses U.S. Embassy Air Quality data. The U.S. Embassy converts P.M. 2.5 (mg per cubic meter) to an Air Quality Index (AQI) to easily guide health decisions. It is fairly typical for Delhi figures to be in the orange or red zone, considered unhealthy at an AQI of 151 to 200, in the summer. Winters typically see figures in the ‘Very Unhealthy’ violet category with an AQI ranging from 201 to 300.

US embassy AQI
U.S. Mission NowCast Air Quality Key


Though April AQIs have been, on average, showing moderate AQIs below 100, the pollution levels in the last week of April spiked.

April 28th, 29th, and 30th averaged at ‘very unhealthy’ levels of air pollution with average AQIs of 248, 246, and 300, respectively. Such high levels of pollution can cause significant aggregation for those with heart or lung problems.

The highest hourly averages on these days were above 500, with the maximum of 592 on 29th April. To put this into perspective, the U.S. Embassy Air Quality key maxes out at 500, which marks the maximum in the worst category, ‘hazardous.’ Hazardous levels of air pollution may cause serious heart and lung risks, even leading to mortality amongst those with cardiopulmonary disease. At levels above an AQI of 500, these effects may worsen.

Though there are is no evidence to help us understand the unusual spike, the high amount of air pollution may be a result of two on-going activities. One, the end of April brings an end to the wheat season. To clear the land of wheat stubbles in preparation of planting other crops, farmers often burn the wheat residue. According to Umendra Dutt of the Kheti Virasat Mission, however, only 16% of wheat reside is burned, so it is unclear how strongly the activity contributes to the PM 2.5 levels. Two, water-parched areas in Uttarakhand have resulted in an unusual number of forest fires. As of last weekend, 427 fires were simultaneously burning in the region, with reports of air pollution and poor air visibility.

Though the reasons for the poor air quality is unknown, Delhi government has yet to put precautions in place to protect public health. Contrastingly, China has frequently triggered red alerts in cities across the country when smog levels rise to unusual levels. Red alerts, which include recommendations that people should stay indoors and vehicles should be restricted, are issued when regions see an AQI of 300 or above. Delhi is seeing almost double this number during peak pollution hours, yet the government has taken limited precautions beyond odd-even. Until institutional factors are not addressed, air pollution will persist in high amounts. Such factors include industrial policies in Delhi and neighboring regions, implementation of policies restricting crop burning, and measures to reduce negative health and environmental impact of droughts.

Smart Air Filters featured in The Hindu

On March 31, Smart Air Filters was exclusively featured in The Hindu’s Business Line. In “Making cleaner air affordable the DIY way,” Chetna Mehra highlighted our commitment to providing clean air at a low-cost. Here’s an excerpt from the article – you can read more here.

If you are living in Delhi, you are already deprived of clean air, and may be ready to pay a hefty price to get lungfuls of this precious resource. But how much should clean air cost? Most will say it should be free; but the most affordable tag on it now is ₹3,400.

Social innovation firm Smart Air is selling affordable DIY (do-it-yourself) air-purifiers that clean indoor air as well as any expensive air-purifier available in Indian market in the ₹16,000-30,000 price range.

To find out more about our range of clean air products, check out our online shop.

Smart Air Filters featured on CNN Money

Charles Riley, a journalist with CNN Money, recently published a long-form article on Delhi’s air quality and its impact on individuals—particularly children and those with asthma. Smart Air Filters was thrilled to be featured as one of the groups making Delhi’s air cleaner through our low-cost, DIY air filters. The article also featured Saurabh Bhasin, a lawyer taking up legislative battles with the Supreme Court and Dr. Naresh Trehan, who has called for government reforms to promote cleaner air.

Check out the full article on CNN Money’s website.

How visible is India’s air pollution?

Much too visible, according to Astronaut Scott Kelly, who is finishing up his year onboard the International Space Station. On January 12th, Kelly posted the following picture, which shows northern Uttar Pradesh on the left, and the Himalayas and Nepal on the right.

In December 2014, NASA released a similar picture highlighting the difference in pollution between India and Nepal.

The pictures get part of the story right. Pollution in North India may be much higher than pollution in northern Nepal. 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in India, with a large majority in northern India. Though northern Nepal may have better air quality due to the Himalayas, Nepal as a whole may not be significantly better.  Yale’s Environmental Performance Index, which compares air quality among 181 countries, ranked India at 178 and Nepal at 177 – both among the lowest in the world.

Nepal’s low rankings may stem from Kathmandu Valley, whose bowl-shaped topography traps warm, polluted air along with dust and smog. Though the government-installed air monitoring devices in Nepal have been out of order since 2007, a Yale graduate student, Anobha Gurung, conducted PM 2.5 tests in 2009. She found that in certain urban areas, traffic police were exposed to over 500 ug/m3 of PM 2.5 per hour – that’s over 200 times the World Health Organization’s recommended level of 25 ug/m3!

So overall, is Nepal’s air quality that much better than India as the pictures suggest?  Though northern Uttar Pradesh may be worse off than northern Nepal, it’s hard to say. The limited data of Kathmandu and northern Indian cities suggests people may be breathing similar levels of pollution, but we won’t really know until those air monitoring devices in Nepal start working again!