The sources of pollution here include construction and road dust, garbage-burning in vacant areas, and industries that spew pollutants from their stacks or congestion points for traffic.(Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)
The sources of pollution here include construction and road dust, garbage-burning in vacant areas, and industries that spew pollutants from their stacks or congestion points for traffic.(Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

Pollution: Why every one per cent counts, writes Sunita Narain

The source of pollution here is local. Action has to be taken through local agencies. And it has to be systemic
By Sunita Narain
UPDATED ON DEC 15, 2020 08:29 PM IST

Now that the stubble-burning period is over, but air is still polluted and toxic over vast parts of the country, we need to talk about what needs to be done.

Three kinds of actions are essential — steps against episodic pollution events like stubble-burning; steps against local sources of pollution, which aggravate the problem; and more transformational action that will bring long-term benefits. All three levels of pollution management are critical. And all sources of pollution need to be addressed.

I say this because all contributors to pollution say that they are only one per cent of the problem. So if steps are taken to control diesel from vehicles, car owners will say they are one per cent; when power plants are asked to clean up or shut down, they say they are one per cent.

Or when industry is told that the coal that they burn is contributing to the toxic air in the region, they will cry foul and say, what about action against garbage-burning? So, the net result is to point fingers at some other source, away from the action that needs to be taken.

This is also the favourite ploy of governments — Centre to state, agency to agency. Pass the buck and make the problem go away.

But it won’t. Every winter, we will continue to choke and hurt. Every winter, when the weather turns adverse and pollutants settle close to the ground, even the steps taken in the past few years to reduce pollution will get negated. This is because the sources of pollution will continue to grow — the vehicles on the road will increase; they will get older with each passing year and so more polluting; the numbers of industries will increase.

Let us deal with each source. The first is episodic stubble-burning, which starts around October 15, when winter is settling in and the wind turns to bring pollutants from fires to cities of the region, including Delhi.

Steps are needed from now till next October to ensure that machines for stubble management are available in every village; that small and marginal farmers get free access to these and that farmers have evidence of the benefits to turn the crop residue back into the land and not to burn it.

In addition, there are exciting efforts underway to use the stubble to make compressed natural gas or for power generation. These need to be tracked, prodded, pushed and implemented. What is needed is deliberate steps and careful monitoring — month after month.

What is also clear is that post this stubble-fire period, the quality of air in Delhi and the surrounding region remains foul. It ranges between very poor and severe, depending on what meteorologists call the ventilation index — which determines dispersion of pollutants — and wind speed.

According to the National air quality index (AQI), exposure to “poor” levels of air is unhealthy and gets more severe as exposure is prolonged and air quality deteriorates into very unhealthy and hazardous.

To fix this, in the short-term, each pollution hotspot needs to be managed. Currently, there are some 13 hotspots in the region — identified as those with the highest air pollution levels.

The sources of pollution here include construction and road dust, garbage-burning in vacant areas, and industries that spew pollutants from their stacks or congestion points for traffic.

The source of pollution here is local. Action has to be taken through local agencies. And it has to be systemic.

The reason is that garbage removed one day; or a road paved one day, is then filled again with waste or dug up again. This is where we need maximum governance for maximum gain.

But all this will not be enough — it will be like putting out small fires in a blazing forest. We need action at speed and scale. The key is to tackle the problem of coal-burning in the region — in power plants and in literally thousands of industrial units scattered across the legal and illegal parts of Delhi and the region.

Delhi’s ban on the use of coal is good. But industries have then moved either to illegal and unauthorised areas in the city or to surrounding states. Here they continue to use coal, for it is the cheapest fuel, as against natural gas, which is doubly and triply taxed so it is unaffordable.

We need a second gas revolution in the region — compressed natural gas (CNG) for vehicles brought us the first-generation change. We now need a fuel-switch in all sources for clean air.

This includes using clean electricity for powering industry and vehicles. But remember, if the power plant is dirty, then electric vehicles will only mean that we shift the problem from us to them. The airshed is one, so the pollutants will come back to our lungs.

This is why air pollution is a great equaliser, and we are all in it together. Every one per cent counts.

Sunita Narain is director-general, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal
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