Ahead of the 2015 assembly polls, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) gave an elaborate statement of purpose in its manifesto about reforming the health and education sectors. What it did not have was a clear road map to curb pollution.
In December 2015, after the Delhi High Court called the capital a “gas chamber”, the fledgling government was forced to react. Taking suo moto cognisance of reports on rising air pollution, the court had directed the Centre and the Delhi government to submit an action plan to deal with the problem.
Delhi is one of the world’s most polluted cities with some studies putting daily pollution related fatalities in the capital at as high as eight. November 2016 saw the city enveloped in dense smog with particulate matter shooting to unprecedented levels. PM10 levels in November at Anand Vihar touched 1700 mark (the safe limit is 100).
During the course of its two-year rule, the AAP government proved that it is neither short of ideas nor political will when it comes to tackling pollution. But when it decided to go ahead with odd-even car rationing plan, it lacked the conviction to go the whole hog. It also didn’t use the pollution-free months in 2016 to prepare for the winter spike.
“In 2015-16, there was a sense of optimism as the Delhi government came up with a short-term action plan and implemented the odd-even plan. After that there was a slowdown and the government missed out on rolling out a sustained plan of action. Months later, we got caught in the deadly smog and got into a reactive mode. This time the action has to be sustained,” says Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
Jagan Shah, director, National Institute of Urban Affairs, agreed. “Air pollution spiked to alarming levels, so the government came up with a slew of measures. But, it was quite late. High decibel announcements are made which often fizzle out later.”
A look at steps taken by the government showed these either lost steam midway or were implemented without a comprehensive long-term strategy.
World over, collection of data is the first step to fighting pollution. The Delhi government talked of deploying mobile monitoring stations. But a related plan to put up screens at public places is yet to take off. Although ₹137 crore was allocated, a senior government official said it may not be implemented at all.
“We are looking at widening air quality monitoring network with 20 new stations. These will all have screens to display real-time pollution readings,” the official said. More monitoring points will help micro handling of air quality.
The SC recently asked the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to withdraw funds from the environment compensation charge fund to buy equipment for new monitoring stations across Delhi-NCR. In Delhi, apart from CPCB, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, SAFAR (under the Union government) and the US embassy have installed pollution testing mechanisms. Delhi has 28 stations — four by DPCC, eight by the Met department and the rest by CPCB.
In 2015, the AAP government launched odd-even car rationing plan – a brave move in a city where the total number of vehicles is set to touch 10 million. Though there was no visible impact on air pollution, the first phase saw reduced traffic on roads. But the second phase resulted in “more congestion on roads”.
A study by School of Planning and Architecture also showed that the share of private vehicles in the city rose by almost 50% during odd-even phase two. “Vehicle owners became smarter and bought second hand cars. People went for retrofitted CNG kits, which pollute more. The air quality also dipped due to factors like lack of wind speed,” said Dr S Velmurugan, senior principal scientist, traffic engineering and safety division at CSIR-CRRI. The poor state of public transport didn’t help either.
Dust and farm fires
The AAP government banned construction activity to check pollution by dust in November and December last year. According to the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF), dust is the highest source of pollution in Delhi and contributes to 52% of particulate matter.
The government steps, however, were not backed by intensive measures such as step-by-step demolition, covering construction site during demolition and use of sprinklers. Mechanical sweeping never took off properly.
Every year, farm fires in Punjab and Haryana raise pollutants by over six times the limit. The Delhi government has raised the issue but despite court bans and fines, the practice continued.
With the Centre notifying the graded response action plan, it is time for the AAP government to show it is ready to walk the talk. The plan assigns specific responsibility to each agency to counter pollution. Environment Pollution Control Committee chief Bhurelal said : “Over two years, the government has taken steps. The biggest milestone will be the graded action system. The onus is on the state government now,” he said.