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Metro Matters: Can’t fight air pollution emergency by apportioning blame

Blaming external factors such as stubble smoke and meteorological conditions for its foul air, Delhi seems to have made peace with its own polluting ways. It’s time we owned up to our responsibilities.

columns Updated: Nov 14, 2017 00:15 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times
Delhi pollution,Delhi air quality,Delhi smog
Delhi’s air is a toxic mix of vehicular emissions, construction dust, smoke from garbage and leaf burning, and fumes from thermal plants and factories.(Sonu Mehta/HT FILE)

Delhi slow-cooked a perfect pea-souper last week when pollution levels spiked and have remained stuck to the “severe” category for six straight days since. The prevailing weather conditions across north India were blamed for the haze.

But the weather was just an aggravator. Pollution could peak to 450+ on the scale of 500 on the National Air Quality Index because the base was already high. Barring the monsoon months, Delhi’s air pollution levels remain in the range of 200-300+ on the AQI for most of the year. While “good” and “satisfactory” days are a rarity, “moderate” are few. “Poor” and “very poor” have become the new normal.

Blaming external factors such as stubble smoke and meteorological conditions for its foul air, Delhi seems to have made peace with its own polluting ways. It’s time we owned up to our responsibilities.

Delhi’s air is a toxic mix of vehicular emissions, construction dust, smoke from garbage and leaf burning, and fumes from thermal plants and factories. These activities go unregulated round the year. It is only when its already toxic air worsens to hazardous smog in winter, Delhi presses the SOS button. By then, it is too late.

Last week, when the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) directed different agencies to enforce clean air measures under the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP), they were reluctant and ill-equipped. It mattered little that EPCA was a Supreme Court-appointed panel, that the GRAP had the legal backing, and that all agencies had a full year to prepare.

The municipalities resisted hiking the parking fees citing bureaucratese. But the truth is that the corporations never had any control over its contractors to enforce any parking reform. The new policy, which provides for a fee hike in commercial zones and charges for residential parking that is otherwise free, could have provided a better enforcement mechanism. But the plan has been in the works since early this year.

Diesel trucks were temporarily banned from entering Delhi. But the ones not destined for Delhi could have easily bypassed the national capital all year round if the peripheral highways were ready. Cleared for construction in 2005, the western part of this ring road is still not open.

The Delhi government announced and then withdrew the odd-even drive after the National Green Tribunal rejected the exemption given to 6.3 million highly polluting two-wheelers, which could have negated the benefits of road rationing. Beijing and Paris routinely cut the number of vehicles on roads when air pollution levels peak. Delhi too could have benefitted from the drive when the pollution levels were the highest.

But with the number of buses in its fleet hitting a seven-year low, the government could not have rolled out the odd and even arrangement on a day’s notice or take the excess load of two-wheeler riders on public transport.

Except for the buses purchased by private operators, the government hasn’t bought a single one for its DTC fleet since the 2010 Commonwealth Games. While Delhi killed an established bus service citing tendering problems and maintenance contract issues, Bengaluru, which began revamping its bus system much after the national capital, now runs 6,400 buses compared to Delhi’s 5,425. For perspective, Bengaluru is half the size of Delhi in both population and expanse.

Construction dust is also choking Delhi. The city is a perpetual construction project where more roads, flyovers, pavements, Metro lines, shopping malls, offices and houses keep coming up. While the city loves to build, it rarely follows site management protocols to keep the dust pollution under check.

Big chunks of debris are usually removed once construction is over. But the building material – sand, cement or finer concrete — is left behind. Much of Delhi’s ‘earth’ today is made of construction dust. If you pick up a fistful, you’ll see how it slips out of your hand. We are not only walking on construction waste but also breathing it.

All of us know the major factors contributing to Delhi’s choking air pollution. Yet, the authorities and stakeholders keep quibbling over statistics, pointing fingers at one another.

Apportioning blame is not how one fights an emergency. If an ungodly creature strangles you with its many hands, you are unlikely to debate which one to chop first. But then, you wouldn’t nurture the monster in your living place in the first place. Not unless you are in Delhi.

shivani.singh@hindustantimes.com

First Published: Nov 13, 2017 10:56 IST