Last week, I was in Uttar Pradesh, trying to gauge the mood of the poll-bound state. As I stood on the banks of the Ghagra that meanders through what was once the regal Awadh, listening to stories about the river’s bouts of madness (it changes course often, destroying lives) and demands for better rehabilitation packages for its victims, my colleague said: “Take in as much fresh air as you can… you’ll be back in polluted Delhi soon”.
By the time we reached the Capital, the world had changed: Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 currency notes were junk and the US had a new president. Together, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President-elect Donald Trump had displaced Delhi’s high air pollution levels from the top news pedestal.
But the air, as I found out soon, hadn’t changed. As the plane circled above Delhi due to non-availability of a free runway for landing, I opened the window shades. A toxic smog blanket was floating above the city and through it I could see a few dim lights. At the airport, social media confirmed that pollution levels were still quite high across Delhi.
Check: Air Quality Index
While the city government announced a couple of measures to contain the damage due to air pollution, it is the courts that have been wielding the big stick and hauling up both the central and state governments, which are at loggerheads on several issues, for their inability to contain air pollution.
First, the National Green Tribunal has asked the government to set up centralised and state-level monitoring committees to prepare action plans to combat pollution and directed four northern states to consider banning 10-year-old diesel vehicles.
Second, it has asked Delhi and its four neighbouring states to sprinkle water from choppers, stop construction activities and shut down polluting power plants and gensets whenever air pollution reaches severe levels.
Third, the Supreme Court pulled up the Central Pollution Control Board for not devising an action plan in time to deal with the alarming smog situation and asked the Centre to come out with time-bound measures to tackle the graded level of worsening air quality.
Fourth, the Delhi High Court slammed the government and other agencies over alarming pollution in the city and held government inaction and stubble burning in Punjab as the real culprits, saying somewhat dramatically that the lax attitude of the government amounts to “genocide” and “murder”.[i]
At office, things had moved faster while I was away. Several colleagues are now battle ready: They have bought air purifiers and masks. A neighbour who had stood in a queue at Khan Market for a mask wondered agitatedly: “I drink purified water, have generators for back up. I drive my car… and now I will have to purify my air… do I need a government anymore?” I am sure this must have crossed your mind too in recent days.
Though the air pollution story has managed to get traction and initiated a dialogue on air quality, it is disheartening to note that the all that talk has not moved beyond the borders of Delhi.
In north India, several Tier 2 cities --- New Delhi, Varanasi, Lucknow, Allahabad, Gwalior, Patna, Ranchi and Kanpur --- are equally if not more polluted than Delhi. In fact, when I was in Lucknow, the city’s air was far more polluted than that of Delhi but then no one seem to be losing any sleep over it. But can we clean up Delhi’s air if we don’t clean up Ghaziabad or Gurgaon?
Moreover, the discussion in Delhi on the reasons of pollution is much too focused on vehicular pollution and, at best, the burning of crop residue in Punjab.
“What’s missing in this narrative are the more complex causes like the highly concentrated industrial belt, high density of population, concentrated locations of thermal power plants, combined with a very poor focus on air quality management; which are central to poor air quality across the entire Indo-gangetic belt in North India, impacting cities like New Delhi, Varanasi, Lucknow, Allahabad, Gwalior, Patna, Ranchi and Kanpur,” says a report by Global Strategic Communications Council, a global network of communications professionals in the field of climate and energy.
This lack of consensus on what must be done and conflicting opinions continue to choke Delhi and other north Indian cities every winter and this delay in action could have huge health impacts.
But no one seems to be ready to grasp the nettle. Recently Union road transport and highway minister Nitin Gadkari told Hindustan Times that the city government needs to conduct a comprehensive study to ascertain the principal polluters before deciding on the course of action to clean up the city’s air.
One more study? Really, Mr Gadkari? Is there any dearth of studies on what is causing pollution in Delhi and what policy measures are needed to tackle it? A 2012 study by IIT, Delhi, on aerosols formation has stated that the Indo-Gangetic belt is prone to high levels of oxides of nitrogen and sulphur, which in turn are responsible for increased levels of particulate matter in the air.
Then there is the coal menace: Delhi is located at a distance from the industrial hubs dominated by coal in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh and continues to be feel the effects of long-range transportation of pollutants from coal. New regulations ordered involve retrofitting existing coal fired power plants with technology to cut carbon emission. The deadline for this has been set at December 2017.
Add to these: Crop burning, vehicles and open waste burning.
The last critical step to tackle air pollution was probably the decision to convert all public vehicles to CNG ones. But, we haven’t been even able to remove old cars from the roads. The scheme was drafted by Gadkari’s ministry in May but it failed to get approval from the Centre. If implemented, the policy would have taken 28 million old polluting vehicles off the country’s roads.
What is now needed is multi-ministry action to tackle this monster. Mr Gadkari must look at how his ministry can improve the quality of the city’s roads so that the dust factor can be controlled. In addition to this, he must impress upon his colleagues heading other ministries such as agriculture (to contain crop burning in neighbouring states), urban development ministry (the construction industry is responsible for around 4% of particulate emissions), the power ministry, and the all important environment ministry to get their act together. Pollution is not a one ministry’s problem; there has to be concerted effort to curb it.
Air pollution is not the only challenge we have. Our water sources are polluted and the food chain is chemical-laden.
Such issues are not just environment issues: They will impact our health, bring down productivity levels and is a huge blot on our reputation as an attractive investment and travel destination.
There is too much at stake; as citizens, we must not allow the State this time to get away with piecemeal actions. It cannot be business as usual, anymore.