Metro Matters: Delhi can’t grudge what it takes to breathe easy
The relatively moderate rise in pollution levels on Diwali night may have been attributed to less than usual firecracker bursting following the Supreme Court ban on their sale. But something else was also at play.
Two days to Diwali, Delhi and National Capital Region enforced for the first time the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) to counter “very poor” and “severe” categories of air pollution, which was already peaking. The city’s coal-fired Badarpur plant was closed down and diesel generators were banned temporarily. Polluting brick kilns operating from the suburbs were forced shut. A stricter compliance of ‘Pollution under Control’ norms for vehicles was also enforced.
With action based on the severity of air pollution levels, this Supreme Court-mandated drill, to be supervised by the Environment Pollution Control Authority, starts with routine measures such as spraying water on unpaved roads and penalising garbage burning and moves on to drastic ones such as limiting cars on roads, raising parking fee, halting construction work, shutting down polluting factories, power plants and generators.
Modelled on the alert systems in Beijing and Paris, this is the most comprehensive clean air plan Delhi ever got. Since air pollution knows no boundaries, GRAP covers the entire National Capital Region – Delhi plus 22 districts in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. Its vast scope also makes GRAP a huge monitoring and enforcement challenge.
For one, the NCR does not have a uniform pollution monitoring machinery. Delhi’s is the most advanced with national air-quality index picking data from 28 stations. But only seven NCR towns have similar capacity. While more NCR districts will have to be brought on the national air-quality monitoring grid urgently, inspection and enforcement at such a scale will require massive and rapid capacity building.
Right now, even the national capital is struggling. The enforcement wing of the transport department has only 250 employees to inspect fitness of commercial vehicles, check PUC norms, impound polluting vehicles, enforce the odd-even road rationing on Delhi’s 3.1 million cars and stop entry of diesel trucks into the city limits. This workforce includes fewer than 50 inspectors who have the powers to prosecute.
The Delhi Pollution Control Committee distributes green licences to commercial establishments, ensures compliance with dust control measures at construction sites, stop the use of diesel generators and also monitor pollution in 32 industrial zones. Under GARP, it is also assigned the job of issuing public health alerts and running control rooms to record feedback and complaints for agencies concerned. To handle this workload, DPCC has only 60-odd officials and an equal number of trainees.
Combating pollution invariably extracts its price. While capacity building demands major investments, drastic anti-pollution measures also affect the economy.
For inspiration, Delhi can look at Beijing, which faced similar challenges.
When the Chinese capital introduced colour-coded pollution alert system in 2013, authorities were often reluctant to sound the red alert, the highest alarm that called for drastic measures such as shutting down schools and factories and halving the number of cars on the roads. There were even instances of officials protecting operations of factories under their watch.
Also, Beijing’s pollution problem was not entirely its own making. The Chinese capital abuts Hebei, a steel-producing region that contains seven of China’s 10 most polluted cities. The mismatch in resources meant that while the Hebei’s Environmental Protection Bureau had fewer than 50 members, Beijing alone had 700, the Diplomat reported in 2015.
In the last two years, Beijing has risen to the challenge. The funding on anti-pollution measures has seen a nearly 50% jump to 18.2 billion yuan ($2.6 billion) since 2014.
As part of regional coordination, Beijing has given 962 million yuan ($139 million) to Hebei since 2015 to strengthen its pollution-mitigation efforts, wrote the China Daily.
To improve enforcement within the city, Beijing set up a smog police in January this year. One of its main jobs is to regulate open-air barbecues, garbage incineration and the burning of wood and other biomass.
China has set its priority right. Its New Air Law requires cities to stay on track to meet national targets even if it takes shifting emphasis from GDP growth to cleaning up the foul air — a health hazard and a dent on China’s international image.
The Supreme Court has already appointed the best minds for day-to-day monitoring of the graded action plan. What Delhi needs now is an unwavering political will and public support for the tough measures necessary to breathe easy.