Blue Skies in the Post-Covid Era

Abhilasha Purwar
April 27, 2020

For the first time, in many of our lives, we have witnessed such clear blue skies, fresh unpolluted air.

Across the world, more than 3 billion people are in a lockdown. Flights have stopped, the travel industry is on halt, daily commutes to work are a thing of the past. Work from home, with kids in the background or in yesterday’s pajamas, is the new paradigm. And many say these paradigms are here to stay.

For the first time, in many of our lives, we have witnessed such clear blue skies, fresh unpolluted air. For years, people across India had adjusted their definition of clean air, blue sky, healthy environment, to suit the ineffectiveness of its administration. In fact, one leading argument was that India is an inherently dusty country, and the WHO standard is designed for western nations. Another argument made Indians immune from the hazard of air pollution by virtue of growing with it for over two decades. Defying all these misconceptions, the lockdown has revealed clearly that clean and healthy air quality is entirely possible across the country.

At many levels, it was an aspirational handicap, at many levels, we simply didn’t know, how beautifully clean and healthy our cities and neighborhoods could be.

Shadipur (North West Delhi neighborhood with a low green cover) and Bandra (Seaside cleanest urban AQ station in India) showing consistent sub 30 safe AQ levels post Lockdown

Across both Tier 1 cities like Delhi, Gurgaon, Mumbai, Bangalore, and Tier 2 cities like Lucknow, Varanasi, and Patna; the effect of lockdown is clear and evident. This has clearly laid bare the weakness of the Indian transport system which emits a high level of PM2.5, PM10, and NOx in the local air and leads to drastic health hazards.

Delhi Neighborhoods like Patpadganj and Indiarpur showing single-digit air quality numbers, 2 and 5, last witnessed 12 years ago in 2008

When you don’t know what you don’t know, its difficult to even imagine what the possibilities are. For large part of the Indian population, clear air was that unknown. Many of us had to dig far back in our childhood memories to erase pollution and remember clean air. Our demands for clean air were as fickle as our memories of it.

Singrauli, with Vindhayachal STPS capacity 4760 MW, the world’s 9th largest coal power plant, continues business-as-usual air quality levels amid the lockdown. No significant drop observed.

With an exception of major coal power plant impacted areas, the entire country as shown a sharp plunge in air pollution levels. This pre-post lockdown, clearly outline the major source of pollution of the area: power plant, industrial, vehicular, and equips us with focus, tools, and determination to solve them

Rohini (Industrial area in North West Delhi) and Ardhali Bazaar in Varanasi (a busy market with high vehicle footfall)

The Covid lockdown has led to economic losses in billions of dollars. The entire economy has been disrupted, production halted, industries brought to their knees. Even though air pollution, on an annual basis, has been killing multitudes of people more than coronavirus and wrecking slow and steady health damages, changes worth a fraction of economic cost found infinite reluctance in each corner of society, industry, and policy.

Ban the diesel vehicle fleet across the country? Transform all of the trucks and buses into electric vehicles? Provide huge subsidies on electric two-wheelers, cancel import duties? These simple and entirely possible solutions would have reduced vehicular pollution in Indian cities by a major magnitude. Yet, for the limitations of a budget of a few million dollars here and there, we overlooked them and added to the implementation difficulties.

As the world reopens again, it will fall upon us to reimagine its structure. Reimagine the priorities for the budget, policy, technology, and implementation. Re-demand clean air, lower emissions, aggressive climate action. If the coronavirus health crisis can lead to a redefined priorities, maybe it won’t all be in vain. Else, may God help our country and its citizen for the next climate crisis of this decade.