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In the fight against pollution, set time-bound goals

The recent attempt to introduce emissions standards for the thermal power industry puts in perspective the governance process for essential air quality safeguards

analysis Updated: Jan 29, 2018 07:48 IST
Schoolchildren wearing masks owing to high pollution levels in Ghaziabad, November 8, 2017.
Schoolchildren wearing masks owing to high pollution levels in Ghaziabad, November 8, 2017. (Sakib Ali/Hindustan Times)

There are a few things that need to be understood when discussing pollution. Air pollution takes a long time to develop, as does resolving the problem. Remedial measures require continuous and focused follow through, and not knee-jerk reactions each time air quality deteriorates on a seasonal basis.

Second, air pollution knows no borders. Air quality can be impacted by occurrences many miles away, from adjoining states, to countries across the seas. So, it is useful to recognise what issues we can have a direct impact on, and which ones we cannot.

Third, air pollution is created in numerous ways (power, transport, industry, dust, waste, agriculture), which therefore need multiple lines of attack on all fronts. While understanding the contributing shares of each of these sources is important, there is no point in deflecting action on any one source by getting bogged down in debating relative shares. All major sources are bad and need to be attacked.

Finally, the action plan must have quantifiable time-bound objectives against which progress can be tracked rather than relying on a set of disparate open-ended measures. National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) are in place, so action needs to be planned and tracked against these standards. This focus will ensure that we do not lose momentum each time we get a seasonal improvement.

There have been many positive measures over the past few years dealing with cleaner fuels, renewable energy, improved technology etc. Continued focus on implementation and enforcement remains necessary. While individual measures makes sense, action must be planned holistically to keep track of the overall progress being made. The recent attempt to introduce emissions standards for the thermal power industry puts in perspective the governance process for essential air quality safeguards.

Thermal power plants are major sources of a range of pollutants, including particulate matter, SOx, NOx, and mercury. This is particularly true of older plants, that are not only more polluting but also are inefficient and use copious amounts of water. In December 2015, the MoEFCC introduced comprehensive emission standards for thermal power plants, and allowed 24 months till December 2017 for implementation. The deadline of December 7, 2017 passed, and little was done by the industry to comply. It must be noted that the largest owner and operator of thermal power plants are federal (NTPC) and state-owned utilities.

The recent judiciary-driven action in the National Capital Region (NCR) is welcome, but this is a nationwide problem and must be tackled accordingly.While the courts have done an admirable job in announcing ad hoc measures, the executive must develop a comprehensive inter-sectoral long-term policy with specific targets and timelines if we are to see the change that is so urgently required. Even if the MoEFCC and the CPCB become more visibly active, the question of their jurisdiction over activities under control of other Ministries such as power, industry, transport, urban development, agriculture etc. remains. Given the seriousness and complexity of the problem and the urgency of providing solutions across jurisdictions, the recent formulation of an inter-ministerial committee under the leadership of the prime minister’s office is a welcome and much-needed move.

Much needs to be done on many fronts, including

• Introduction of stricter emission standards for all industries and enforcement by authorities as there are standards for over 100 other industries

• Strengthening the quality of Environmental Impact Assessments to ensure proper assessment of air quality / environmental impact and the region’s carrying capacity are made and appropriate control measures have been planned for.

• Increased technical and administrative capacity of the state pollution control boards and ability for these statutory bodies to operate with greater independence.

• Improved AQ forecasting capabilities and greater clarity on emergency response measures so that these kick in before episodes, rather than being introduced as an afterthought.

Appropriate citizen and business behaviour must be incentivised by providing financially viable alternative courses of action. Fines and diktats have limited effectiveness. For example, just banning farmers from burning stubble has not made a difference to farmer behaviour. What is needed are technical alternatives that make economic sense for the farmer in order to change behaviour.

Industry needs to be made aware of the policy pathway in advance in order not to disrupt production. For example, the ban on pet coke, as desirable and necessary as it is, was enforced with no lead time provided, resulting in disruption to production and employment. Yet where industry has been given significant lead time, as in the case of thermal power plant emission standards or conversion to BS IV fuels, they have failed to make use of the notice provided.

Policy action must be accompanied by greater access to data and increased consumer awareness. This will be possible through installation of a far greater number of air quality monitors and appropriate dissemination of the data collected. Our role as citizens is to push accountability and to comply and ensure compliance with rules of those around us.

Before we despair at ever improving air quality in Delhi and its environs, we must remember that such situations have prevailed in other major global cities such as London, Los Angeles etc. and have been tackled successfully. Beijing, too, has made progress. This did not happen overnight but took several years working to a thought out comprehensive plan. We can, and must, do so too.

Naina Lal Kidwai is chair, sustainability council, Energy and Water Mission, FICCI and Krishan Dhawan is CEO,Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation

The views expressed are personal