Fight against pollution: Graded Response Action Plan to kick in with Covid crisis in air
The Graded Response Action Plan (Grap), is a set of curbs triggered in phases as the air quality deteriorates, which is typical of the October-November period.
The winter phase of the mechanism to tackle air pollution comes into force in Delhi-NCR from October 15 with a ban on diesel-run electricity generators, instructions for washing of roads and increased patrolling of known hot spots, authorities announced on Thursday amid fears that this year’s pre-winter pollution could be even harder to control than usual due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Graded Response Action Plan (Grap), is a set of curbs triggered in phases as the air quality deteriorates, which is typical of the October-November period. Farm fires in neighbouring states and cooling weather typically combine at this time of the year to blanket the region in smoke.
It includes strict measures such as a ban on the entry of heavy vehicles, the odd-even road rationing restrictions, and a halt of construction work – each of which are likely to be impractical at a time when the pandemic has exacted heavy economic costs and public transport has been seen as an infection risk.
“This winter, all agencies and state governments of Delhi-NCR must come together to try and not allow the need to bring in any additional emergency measures such as banning vehicles and construction. We recognise the economy is already under stress post-lockdown and therefore our combined effort must be to ensure there is no further disruption,” said Bhure Lal, the chairperson of Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (Epca), the agency set up by the Supreme Court to tackle the perennial problem.
According to Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) data, the air quality in Delhi was in the “poor” zone for the second consecutive day on Thursday – typical for this time of the year. In the last four years, the air quality index (AQI) entered poor for the first time after the monsoons between September-end and first week of October.
Thursday’s AQI was 208, slightly lower than Wednesday’s 215. But these are the worst numbers seen since mid-June, and the trend of farm fires in Punjab and Haryana suggest the levels may deteriorate further soon.
According to observations from National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) satellites, the number of farm fires in these two states in the last two months – at 2,636 -- has been the highest since 2014.
The situation becomes such that cities have been likened to a “gas chamber” and experts warn that such conditions are likely to exacerbate Covid-19 infections. Lal said the agency recognises the Covid-19 risk factor link. “Hence, efforts are required on the ground to prevent pollution levels from rising,” he said.
The Epca head added that a ban on entry of trucks may be unlikely this year since most such vehicles appear to have affixed radio tags that can help identify whether they have paid the Environment Concession Charge or are indeed meant to enter Delhi, instead of merely passing through. “The RFID (radio frequency identification) system is working well at 13 entry points. We plan to direct the Delhi government to deploy officials with hand-held devices at the remaining border points to check that trucks not destined for Delhi do not enter the city. Also, with both the eastern and western peripheral expressways, the truck traffic load has decreased significantly.”
Stricter measures, however, have not been ruled out entirely and will depend on how bad the problem becomes, the authority decided at its Thursday meeting, according to a letter it sent to state authorities. Some measures that come into force from October 15 are meant for a more serious stage of air pollution, particularly the ban on diesel generators. Essential services such as hospitals will be exempted.
Medical experts reiterated the need to curb pollution in order to mitigate Covid-19 risks. “There are several studies from across the world that show pollution certainly has an impact on Covid-19 related mortality. In Italy, there was 12% mortality in northern Italy as compared to 4.5% in the rest of the country. The study attributed it to high air pollution levels in the region. A study from Europe shows that 78% mortality was in regions with high Nitrogen Oxide levels. Another study from the US shows that every 1μg increase in PM 2.5 leads to an 8% increase in Covid-19 death rate,” said Dr GC Khilnani, former head of pulmonology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).
Environment experts said the number of farm fires seen in Punjab and Haryana seen till now suggests the pollution peak may come sooner than usual. “With burning starting early, it may turn out that when the pollution peaks between October-end and November 15, the activity has receded and may not contribute to the peak as much. However, this is to be watched. Secondly, this year since many people are still working from home, vehicular emission will be somewhat lower than last year and pollution levels may not turn so severe as it has in the past,” said Sagnik Dey, associate professor at the Centre for Atmospheric Sciences, IIT-Delhi.
He added that for a long-term measure, the four states -- Delhi, Haryana, UP and Punjab -- have to come together to draw up a plan to fight pollution. “Unless there is better coordination among these states, it will be difficult to bring down overall levels of pollution, as activities in all four states contribute to the pollution observed in Delhi every year,” he said.
On Thursday, Epca decided that large-scale construction projects such as on highways and for the Delhi Metro in Delhi-NCR will need to give an undertaking to the respective state pollution control boards that they will comply with dust-control norms.
Similarly, industries in the red and orange categories (classified as those with higher emissions) will be required to give an undertaking to the pollution boards that they will only use approved fuels. The Grap’s winter rules, which first were drawn up in 2017, will stay in force till March 31.
(With inputs from Vijdan Mohammad Kawoosa)