Air quality in North India to be better this winter than 2017: Harsh Vardhan
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Air quality in North India to be better this winter than 2017: Harsh Vardhan

“There was reasonable improvement in air quality in 2017 compared to 2016, and we will ensure 2018 is better than 2017,” Union minister Harsh Vardhan said.

india Updated: Aug 27, 2018 07:24 IST
Union minister Harsh Vardhan has said his ministry is getting a comprehensive study done on the impacts of outdoor air pollution on community health with the help of AIIMS.(HT Photo )

Union minister Harsh Vardhan has weathered a storm for insisting that India cannot rely on international estimates for air pollution-related disease and deaths, pushing through a controversial DNA Technology Bill that critics say threatens privacy, getting the country’s top labs to develop “pollution-free” firecrackers, and participating in his neighbourhood Ramleela.

He spoke to HT’s Health & Science Editor Sanchita Sharma about the controversies and the successes in his ministries’ efforts to make India clean and green. Edited excerpts:

Should we expect cleaner air across north India this winter?

Absolutely, 100%. A lot of action has been taken to address all related aspects over the past couple of years.

There was reasonable improvement in air quality in 2017 compared to 2016, and we will ensure 2018 is better than 2017. The ‘good’ and ‘better’ days (in terms of Air Quality Index) are more in number as compared to last year, and the ‘bad’ and ‘worse’ days are decreasing. The dissemination of information through the national Air Quality Index (AQI) has led to higher awareness and the demand for action.

The Centre has allocated Rs 1,151 crore for agricultural mechanisation in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi-NCR from 2018-20 to reduce the burning of crop residue.

Apart from establishing farm machinery banks for custom hiring, financial assistance at 80% of the project cost to farmer co-ops, self-help groups... and 50% of the cost to individual farmers will be provided by the Centre.

We’ll also regularly review the graded action plan (to control of air pollution) implementation. Another example of our seriousness was the government’s decision to leapfrog from BS-IV to BS-VI fuels, a step that no other country has taken.

Was there pressure from vehicle-manufacturers on the fuel change?

No, there’s no pressure from the industry on banning vehicles not conforming to BS-VI emission norms by April 1, 2020. About three to six months will be provided to automobile manufacturers for the registration of the vehicles manufactured before April 1, 2020, to exhaust the inventory.

No new BS-IV vehicles manufactured before April 1, 2020, will be registered after June 30 (2020).

How is the work progressing on pollution-free crackers?

I have requested CSIR (Council for Scientific & Industrial Research) to get all related labs to produce pollution-free crackers. I’m told they have made a significant headway, and they are constantly in touch with the cracker industry.

Can any firecracker be pollution-free?

You can say minimum polluting —certainly a lot less than what we have today. Once the results are out, only then we can say how successful the project has been.

With cleaning the air high on the agenda, why have thermal power plants been granted extension till 2022?

The new norms for thermal power plants have been discussed for close to a decade, but it was this government that notified it. We have not amended our notification. What we have done is only to draw a clear roadmap for compliance by 2022.

Why were specific targets to reduce air pollution by 35% over three years and 50% over five years in 100 non-attainment cities removed from the national clean air programme (NCAP)? Do you plan to set a new timeline?

A blanket pan-India target of 35% reduction in three years and 50% reduction in five years may be difficult to evaluate and implement. A percentage reduction target and timeline can only be with respect to a specific city after reviewing its action plan and capacity.

But a general minimum indicative target for five years for the top 10 most polluted cities to begin with can be indicated in the NCAP based on general international experiences.

Has a budget been set for NCAP?

Rs 300 crore has been allocated to NCAP for a ‘pollution abatement’ scheme for 2018-19 and 2019-20. The draft memorandum for expenditure has been sent to ministries concerned, including finance, for comments. The approval is yet to come and is subject to appraisal by a competent authority.

You and the NCAP say there are no conclusive data available to establish direct correlation of death/disease exclusively due to air pollution.

Do you expect air pollution to damage the health of Indians differently than other pollutants such as tobacco smoke and pesticide, chemical and heavy metal contamination?

We do acknowledge that air pollution has significant health impacts that have increasingly been becoming a major environmental challenge. But it is erroneous to refer to it as a major health crisis on modelling-based statistical estimation that has used no direct experimental data. Though various respiratory and other aliments can be attributed to air pollution, there is no concrete field-based experimental study to correlate death with air pollution in the country. The ministry is getting a comprehensive study done on the health impacts of outdoor air pollution on community health. It will be done simultaneously at 20 leading medical centres with the technical support from AIIMS (All-India Institute of Medical Sciences), ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research), PGI-Chandigarh, AMCHSS-Thiruvananthapuram etc.

There are fears that the DNA Technology (Use and Application) bill may lead to breach of privacy.

I’d say these fears have been over-addressed. Over the last three years, the bill has been subjected to all sorts of technical scrutiny by stakeholders outside government as well as by the law ministry, home ministry and the high-powered committee headed by the home minister. There is no need to be worried about privacy issues. The bill has been introduced in the Lok Sabha and I sincerely wish it becomes law in the next session.

Why is Taj Mahal turning yellow? What’s being done to protect it?

There is as yet no scientific method to assess whether the Taj Mahal is turning yellow or not. Reports indicate that areas of the Taj that have undertaken cleaning using mud packs have regained colour, so it’s incorrect to say the Taj is turning yellow without adequate scientific evidence. Our ministry had requested ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) to institute a scientific method.

The main concern is air polluting industries. Since particulate matter deposits may make it look somewhat discoloured, there’s a moratorium on orange, red and green (grades of pollution, white industries being the cleanest) industries.

The Compensatory Afforestation Rules 2018 to utilise Rs 660 billion for tree plantation are being criticised for giving gram sabhas no role in how the money is spent. Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh has called it a “blatant breach of assurances” given by your government. What’s your response?

Till now, the criticism was why hasn’t it been notified. Now after all sorts of scrutiny— it was put in the public domain, sent to state governments and related stakeholders and all concerned, and their views and comments were incorporated— it’s in the stage where it is being implemented and states are going to be helped. Raising superfluous objections now carries no meaning. They may be for political reasons. And whenever there is a need, we will address all concerns to everyone’s satisfaction.

Which environment ministry successes are you especially proud of?

All of them, but I was particularly happy with the response to the campaign against plastic pollution. With increased awareness, state governments were able to push through new restrictions on single-use plastic.

We’ve streamlined clearance processes, and environmental, CRZ (coastal regulation zone) and forest clearance processes have been moved online. The process is now transparent, speedy and efficient, which in the earlier days was a major hurdle for developmental projects, including strategic projects for national security. District, state authorities and regional offices of the ministry have been empowered to grant clearances to ensure speed and accountability. The average time taken is now around 160 days, down from over 600. The amendment of the Indian Forest Act, 1927, to take bamboo out of the definition of “trees” to encourage farmers to grow bamboo outside forests will enhance their income and give impetus to about 20 million people involved in bamboo-related activities. One tonne of bamboo provides 350 man-days of employment.

Do you support sex education in school?

It is necessary to educate everyone appropriately at a very young age. It is better that young children are informed about various body parts and their functions by their parents and teachers because it will help children discuss questions related to sex and gender with their parents and teachers and get correct answers. It would be disastrous if children get half-baked information from peers or other sources.

Tell us about your Ramlila experience.

(Laughs) I regularly visited Ramlilas in Geeta Colony, which was my constituency for 20 years, and once they practically forced me to participate. They assigned me to the role of Janak. Lav Kush (Ramlila committee) heard about it and requested me to play Janak. Since it’s in my parliamentary constituency, I agreed. I’ve gone on stage thousands of time, but only once before to act.

Who will be BJP’s face in Delhi elections in 2020? Is the party going to field you again?

I was approached by the party and RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) to join politics in 1993. Since then, till today, I have never, either directly or indirectly, decided what I want to do. I have always been guided by the decision and the wishes of the party.

Have you got any feelers from the party?

No, I haven’t. Not yet? (Laughs) No, not yet about it.

First Published: Aug 27, 2018 07:09 IST