Metro Matters: Delhi, NCR towns need to fight air pollution together
While Delhi came under flak for running fewer buses than that it did three years ago and therefore failing to enforce blanket road rationing, compliance of even basic anti-pollution measures was impossible in the NCR because of poor infrastructure.columns Updated: Nov 20, 2017 15:12 IST
The Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) mandated by the Supreme Court to counter air pollution was meant to be an effort in regional cooperation. The entire National Capital Region (NCR), which sees the worst winter pollution in northern India, was to tackle this health emergency together.
But, when air pollution levels peaked to ‘severe’ ten days ago, what was to be the strength of the GRAP turned out to be its “Achilles Heel”, wrote the Environment Pollution (Control and Prevention) Authority in its report to the Supreme Court.
While Delhi came under flak for running fewer buses than that it did three years ago and therefore failing to enforce blanket road rationing, compliance of even basic anti-pollution measures was impossible in the NCR because of poor infrastructure.
The foul air in Delhi’s suburbs remains mostly under the radar. Compared to 37 air monitoring stations in Delhi, NCR towns in 22 districts of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan have only 10. Even with limited monitoring, these suburbs record pollution levels that equal and often surpass Delhi’s.
Unlike Delhi, which has the IIT-Kanpur report quantifying the sources of pollution, the NCR towns have never been studied comprehensively. Be it vehicular emissions, construction dust, pollution from industries and coal-fired power plants or garbage burning, there is little or no compliance with regulatory norms in these areas.
The Centre for Science and Environment estimates that 450,000 vehicles ply on Gurgaon roads daily, about 50,000 are added every year and 900 trucks cross the city every day. Diesel use is also very high because of the huge numbers of diesel cars and SUVs, as well as the 10-14 seater diesel autos used in shuttle services.
Ghaziabad has 18,000 autos and eight-seaters, which are the only mode of public transport. Many of them run on diesel. When pollution soared last week, Ghaziabad borrowed 77 CNG buses from the UP roadways to transport passengers to the Delhi border. In Gurgaon, only 120 buses ply intra-city. Between 2008 and 2015, the annual registration of buses declined by 300% while that for cars increased by 352% and for two-wheelers by 69%.
The NCR towns are also the country’s largest construction hubs. Apart from the numerous private residential projects, civil construction works – peripheral expressways, widening of highways, underpasses and elevated roads – disperse dust throughout the year in the absence of any regulation. What is worse, this construction boom has caused mass felling of trees.
These suburban towns also house polluting industries. The Central Pollution Control Board identified Bhiwadi, Faridabad and Ghaziabad among the most polluted spots in the NCR, all located on the industrial belt. A recent inspection showed that Ghaziabad alone had 356 air polluting units. There is still no count of factories operating illegally in the region.
The IIT-Kanpur report states that at least 13 thermal power plants, with a capacity to produce 11,000 MW of electricity, are located within a 300km radius of Delhi. These coal-fired units are major contributors of secondary particles or a super-toxic mix of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide gases. A month away from the deadline for implementing new emission norms for thermal plants as notified by the Union Environment ministry two years ago, the government has made no efforts to comply.
Low on efficiency, these plants are not enough to meet the power demand of the NCR towns where most gated communities rely on their own backup supply to avoid blackouts. That is why diesel generators could not be shut down as a measure to curb air pollution under the GRAP in the suburban towns.
Air knows no boundaries and fighting pollution requires regional cooperation. Like Delhi, Beijing’s pollution problem was not entirely of its own making. The Chinese capital abuts Hebei, a steel-producing region comprising seven of China’s 10 most polluted cities. The mismatch in resources and capacity initially slowed down the regional plan. But in the last two years, Beijing has paid $139 million to Hebei to strengthen its mitigation efforts, reported the China Daily.
This year, 27 cities around Beijing together launched a winter campaign to establish auto-monitoring stations, suspend manufacturing in certain industries, restrict traffic in certain city zones and cut use of coal by 11.2 million metric tonnes. In the same time, the state governments in the Delhi-NCR have fought a series of verbal duels on Twitter.
Hoping against hope, let’s call that a beginning.