Delhi pollution: Plans on paper, and poison in the air
Starting October 15, the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (Epca), enforced several preventive measures listed under the “very poor” category, including banning diesel generator sets, starting mechanised sweeping, and closely monitoring the garbage burning ban, among other steps.Updated: Oct 24, 2020, 01:24 IST
Delhi’s air quality slipped to the far end of the “very poor” zone on Friday, raising a belated panic alarm among the city’s pollution monitoring and enforcement agencies, and prompting experts to say that the authorities were once again waking up too late and were likely to do too little to manage the crisis.
With so-called pre-emptive measures listed under the winter segment of the Supreme Court-approved Graded Response Action Plan (Grap) already in place, the Capital will now have to turn to strict restrictions and stringent enforcement to survive the impending air emergency — one that brings the city to its knees every year as grand plans on paper are unable to stop the air from turning poisonous.
Starting October 15, the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (Epca), enforced several preventive measures listed under the “very poor” category, including banning diesel generator sets, starting mechanised sweeping, and closely monitoring the garbage burning ban, among other steps.
Despite this, Delhi’s air quality index (AQI) on Friday was 366, and about 12 of the 35 monitoring stations in the city were over the “severe” 400 mark for large parts of the day.
According to an Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) forecast, the situation is only expected to get worse over the weekend, plunging the city into a public health emergency, as the surface wind-speed remains low and noxious air is carried from farm fires in Punjab, Haryana.
In the middle of this spike, measures envisaged by Epca to control the slide, appear to be having little effect. The body’s chairperson, Bhure Lal, admitted on Friday that all major preventive measures are already in pace, and said the onus was now down to enforcement.
“All measures listed under Grap are already in place, which means that enforcement will be the key now. The governments in Delhi and other NCR states (Haryana and Uttar Pradesh) have been instructed to ensure that water sprinkling is done through the weekend, and any violation of dust control norms, operation of illegal industries and open burning of waste needs to be kept in check,” Lal said. Sunita Narain, also an Epca member, said they will be “watching the situation” for next two days, but there is “no further action suggested”.
According to Grap, first implemented in 2017 through the Supreme Court-appointed Epca, if the air quality continues to be “very poor” for 48 hours, strict measures such as enhancing parking fees three to four times need to be brought it.
But with the Capital still reeling under the Covid crisis, Epca is considering whether it would be feasible to enforce this provision -- both from the point of view of economic activity of common citizens, and the importance of parking collections for the cash-strapped municipal agencies.
The next steps, which come into force under the “severe” category -- if the AQI is above 400 for 48 hours -- are bans on the entry of trucks, on industries running on coal being asked to cease operations, and implementing odd-even road rationing for private vehicles.
Epca is again grappling with the feasibility of these ideas in the time of Covid -- construction agencies, for example, have reached out to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) asking that no bans been enforced this year, irrespective of the air quality, because work is already behind due to the Covid-19 lockdown -- and Delhi’s environment minister Gopal Rai has already described the odd-even scheme as the “last weapon”.
Rai on Friday said that while Delhi is going into this “war against pollution”, there are certain limitations this year, and the government is looking at “alternative measures” that can yield similar results.
“We are dealing with a peculiar time now, but that does not mean we will sit idle and wait for the pollution levels to spike beyond control. We have launched the ‘red light on, gaadi off’ campaign across the city to reduce vehicular emissions causing by idling in traffic signals and we will also launch a campaign to promote green crackers before Diwali,” Rai said.
“People of Delhi will come together and fight pollution, but there are certain things that are not in our hands. What do we do when have to bear the consequences of mass farm fires in Punjab and Haryana. Delhi’s pollution problems cannot be solved in isolation,” he added, putting the onus on farm fires.
But this sense of uncertainty -- both from Epca and the state government — begs a key question: Why is the city once again at a point where it is wondering how to tackle the pollution crisis only when the emergency has already begun?
Tulsi Kumar, an independent researcher who specialises in air quality trends in the Indo-Gangetic Plains, said the authorities cannot wake up right before the winter season every time.
“All through the year you do nothing and wake up a fortnight before pollution levels are to rise. And then expect everything to work according to your plan? Things don’t work that way. Agencies are supposed to work through the year only then can we see impact,” Kumar said.
Mukesh Khare, IIT-Delhi professor, said while a graded response action plan (Grap) has proved effective in many countries, Delhi needs a re-evaluation of the strategy.
“We need to revisit the plan and see what responses should be implemented under which category. Apart from this, implementation is the key. We cannot just blame stubble burning completely.
“Locally, there are several sources. If you go to areas such as Burari, you can see the roads are broken, with dust flying all around and people openly burning tyres...There are multiple agencies responsible for enforcement, and action is lagging,” Khare said.