China authorities squabble over cause of pollution, citizens fume

  • Sutirtho Patranobis, Hindustan Times, Beijing
  • Updated: Dec 02, 2015 22:09 IST
A man wearing a protective mask walks as smog covers China's capital Beijing. (REUTERS)

The pall of smog over Beijing cleared early on Wednesday morning, leaving behind a trail of government departments squabbling over the reasons behind the worst pollution witnessed by the city this year.

It is very rare for China’s tightly controlled state media to criticise government ministries but conflicting statements from officials on the pollution exposed the lack of coordination between departments.

Chinese citizens too brought up the lack of coordination through comments on social media.

“Government departments have given conflicting explanations for the worst smog of 2015 that has engulfed Beijing and much of North China for five days, highlighting what observers say is a lack of coordination and perpetual recriminations in the country’s attempt to tackle pollution,” the state-run Global Times newspaper said in a rare critical write-up.

The article quoted officials giving different reasons for the pollution, countering each other in interviews given to state media outlets.

Winter heating and vehicular pollution were the main reasons, an official from the ministry of urban-rural development said in one interview.

“That comment was countered almost immediately by the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center, which said its analysis of the airborne particles shows that the burning of coal was the culprit behind the smog,” the newspaper reported. Much of rural northern China uses low quality coal for winter heating, contributing heavily to pollution, it said.

“China lags behind in pollution source analysis due to inadequate government financial support and the lack of an open nationwide monitoring database on pollution,” Zhang Yuanxun from the Chinese Academy of Sciences told the newspaper.

The Chinese government’s decision not to issue a “red” alert – the highest in a four-tier system – was criticised as the PM 2.5 mark touched the 800-900 level in some areas in Beijing. Also, heavy smog lasted for over five days, more than the 72-hour deadline to issue the highest alert.

“Classes should be suspended under such atmospheric conditions, but it has become a victim of the current red alert system, which is a tough decision for the authorities. There would be high social costs to suddenly implement an odd-even license plate scheme on alternate days which would affect tens of thousands of private vehicles,” said Ma Jun, director of Beijing-based NGO Institute of Public Environment Affairs.

In Delhi, which according to the World Health Organisation is the world’s most polluted city, inter-departmental bickering and blame game by authorities have led to a lack of concerted efforts to combat the bad air quality.

In an attempt to curb pollution in Delhi, the Supreme Court had in October directed all commercial vehicles entering the city to pay an environmental compensation charge in addition to the toll tax and asked civic bodies to collect it on behalf of the local government.

However, the corporations blamed apathy on the part of toll tax contractors, and the collection of the environment cess did not get off the ground. It was only after the apex court’s intervention that the green fee collection started at the city’s entry points.

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