India can win the war against air pollution | Opinion
Show political will, set up an all-powerful authority led by a credible figure, and embark on comprehensive reforms
In 2015, Chai Jing, a journalist, produced a documentary, Under the Dome, on the pollution in China, largely driven by the concern about her little daughter’s health. It went viral. At first, the Chinese government applauded it, but then got scared of how it was galvanising the public. Within a week, it was banned in China.
However, the Chinese government understood the depth of public anger at the poor air quality. The then premier, Li Keqiang, declared a war against pollution. The China Clean Air Plan was made, which set a clear goal of reducing average annual PM 2.5 level to less than 50 by 2018.
It had action steps, timelines, and resources were committed to achieving this goal. Air quality in Beijing and other cities improved, and the goal was achieved in 2018. China has now announced a follow up three-year plan to restore blue skies, and further reduce air pollution to reach WHO health standards.
As China declared a war on air pollution, air pollution declared a war on India. By 2016, New Delhi became the most polluted capital in the world. Air quality in Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR), and most cities in north India, is alarmingly poor.
We have a heath emergency in which the children, the elderly, and the poor are most at risk. More than half of lung cancer patients in Delhi are non-smokers and suffer due to air pollution. Amitava Ghosh, in his book, The Great Derangement, points out the serious risks to our coastal cities like Mumbai and Chennai from the climate crisis.
But with concerted effort, air quality can improve, as has happened in other cities.
The political leadership has to take the first step, recognise the gravity of the situation, and declare a war on air pollution. It must then provide for financial outlay of whatever it takes to restore blue skies. There must be clear goals, like setting a target of an average annual PM 2.5 level of 60 or less by 2025, and 30 or less by 2030 from the current levels of 120, in Delhi/NCR and other cities.
But to achieve this goal, it is important to appoint a clear functioning authority, led by an individual respected across the political spectrum, with a proven track record of delivering on goals, such as Nandan Nilekani or
E Sreedharan. This authority should then be vested with a specific mandate of improving air quality, provided adequate resources, and given the power to operate across states, multiple levels of government, departments, businesses, and the agricultural and the scientific communities. It should also be able to work with public, particularly young people, and encourage them to change their lifestyles .
This authority, then, can pursue a multi-pronged approach to tackle the issue. Here are ten possible steps.
One, reduce coal consumption by increasing the current cess of ~400 per ton by 10% every year, and ensure financial incentives to coal-based power plants to bring down their emissions as per legal standards or convert to gas as fuel.
Two, tax coal-based thermal power by ~2 per unit and provide these funds as subsidies to wind and solar power plants. Ensure that these renewable plants get priority of off take and payment over thermal plants.
Three, tax all internal combustion two/ three wheelers and cars, and achieve electric vehicle targets set by the Niti Aayog. Limit the number of vehicles by restricting new licenses through high fees, or auctions or lottery. In China, all three are being tried.
Four, impose additional taxes on petrol and diesel, gradually increase it, and use these funds to improve public transportation. Gradually, withdraw diesel buses and implement a plan to procure 100,000 electric buses and another 100,000 electric minibuses. This will reduce unit cost of these buses substantially.
Five, reduce acreage under rice cultivation in Punjab and Haryana significantly by providing subsidies to farmers for switching to other crops. It will also raise the water table and improve soil quality.
Six, reduce industrial emissions by reducing use of coal and converting to gas where feasible. There should be a particularly focus on industries like brick kilns, steel, cement, among others. Companies must have the goal of becoming carbon-neutral.
Seven, improve indoor air quality in schools, colleges, hospitals, homes, offices, and public places.
Eight, municipal governments should maintain pavements for pedestrians, bicycle lanes, have more plants and trees, and reduce road and construction dust.
Nine, engage with the public, particularly children, to promote change in lifestyles, for instance, walking or using bicycle, and reducing electric consumption.
And, finally, increase the monitoring of air quality by state governments by installing a network of monitors and satellite measurements.
A clear political vision, the setting up of an all-powerful authority, and the implementation of these measures could help Delhi reverse the tide — and win the war against air pollution.