For the past few days, people in the Indian capital of Delhi have literally been struggling for a breath of fresh air. A thick smog is suspended in the atmosphere, leading some, including the Chief Minister of State Arvind Kejriwal, to term the region a ‘gas chamber’.
The city’s Air Quality Index (AQI) has crossed the 401 mark to take its pollution levels into the ‘severe’ category. To put things in perspective, an AQI below 50 is considered as safe and up to 100 as acceptable. But at some places in Delhi, this number even reached 1000 over last weekend. On Monday, although things were better, the AQI was still in the ‘unhealthy’ (150-200) category.
The city, which has been reeling under the issue of air pollution for the last year, experiences similar episodes annually as the mercury dips. Delhi, along with its neighbouring suburbs of Noida, Gurgaon, Ghaziabad and Faridabad together referred to as the National Capital Region (NCR), is constantly grappling with smog. In December 2017, the pollution in the city even stopped a test cricket match with Sri Lanka as the bowlers struggled to breathe and some players were left vomiting. This serves to prove that the pollution issue cannot be overlooked as a one of its kind event, but has to be treated as a persisting complex problem needing an exhaustive long term solution.
Sanjay Upadhyay, a Supreme Court lawyer and managing partner of Enviro Legal Defence Firm, which specialises in environmental law, told 7Dnews that this requires all the stakeholders to come onboard for a sustained effort. In an opinion piece ‘Can We Clean the Air?’ published in the firm’s publication ‘Paryavidhi’ he points out this co-ordination dilemma.
“The recently announced National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) states: Collaborative and participatory approach involving relevant Central Ministries, State Governments, local bodies and other stakeholders with focus on all sources of pollution forms the crux of the programme. So, while a nodal ministry ¬– the Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change (MOEF&CC) – will be responsible to co-ordinate with other sectoral ministries, which contribute as well as being part of the solution, getting them on to the same page is the real challenge,” Upadhyay says.
The piece raises a further query: “In case of air pollution as a public health issue, the courts have been active, the scientists have been active, the regulators have been active, and the legislators have been active. But integration and synergy are the bigger questions. Is it possible to create at the Cabinet Secretariat level, a Committee of Secretaries to deal with the multi-pronged problem of air pollution and to ensure the desired synergy?”
Talking to 7Dnews about the issue, he says, “The trouble with a behemoth-sized country like India is also the scale of the problem and its solution. Even if there is a ministerial coordination at the apex level with a committee of secretaries being established on a war footing to curb air pollution, how does one ensure that agencies under these ministries co-ordinate?
“So, for example, a transport corporation, how does it integrate with the Pollution Control Board? A District Magistrate, how does its office integrate with the district officials of the Pollution Control Board? These problems are serious at the ground level. How does a Municipal Corporation at a ward level integrate with the Pollution Control Board? Such coordination is not only difficult but becoming almost impossible and therefore it requires serious consideration at the planning stage itself.
“Can one look at the NITI Aayog, which is the apex planning body, to ensure the integration of the magnitude that has just been discussed above? Unless we do something very quickly and urgently, the tag of world’s most polluted cities in India, the tag of highest mortality due to the air pollution will remain, and we will keep our future generation at peril.”
Why pollution worsens during winter
Beyond a doubt, vehicular pollution seems to be a major source of Delhi’s smog. A study has found that traffic emissions contributed 20-25% of the PM 10 and PM 2.5 (the particulate matter suspended in the air) in Delhi’s air during these months. Moreover, a report by the Ministry of Earth Sciences estimates this percentage to be much higher, at 40%. Other reasons which contribute include coal power stations in the area, estimated to number around 13, as well as the constant construction and demolition activities in the region.
Besides this, the burning of crop residue by farmers in the northern states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab is also said to be a major contributor to this pollution. As the dry fields are set ablaze to clear them as a zero-cost traditional technique to make the land ready for sowing, the air circulation carries the smoke and pollutants to Delhi NCR. But as he introduced the third edition of his odd-even road rationing scheme on Monday, Kejriwal in a tweet said, “Pollution due to stubble burning is not in our hands though we are distributing masks to our Delhiites to reduce its ill-effects on the health of our people. However, let’s try to reduce pollution due to local sources as much as we can.”
Odd-Even rule a political gimmick?
The odd-even rule is a rationing system where cars with a licence plate number ending with even numbers will be allowed to run on even dates and those with odd numbers on odd dates. Violating this rule incurs a penalty for the driver of the vehicle. However, there are certain exemptions to this rule which include vehicles being used in a medical emergency, or those with a lone or all-women passengers and cabs.
The scheme was first introduced in 2016 by Kejriwal government. This year, it has come into effect for the third time. However, the Delhi chief minister, who belongs to the Aam Aadmi Party, has been criticised by the Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for politicising the issue. Reports say another Member of Parliament from the BJP has dismissed the rule calling it a stunt.
7Dnews asked the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a public interest research and advocacy organisation based in New Delhi, about the efficacy of this rule in the past. Vivek Chattopadhyay, programme manager of the CSE’s air pollution control unit, replied via mail: “It is effective in reducing the vehicular traffic load on roads, hence reduces the congestion in several choked areas. Studies found that as the vehicles move at an optimal speed of 40-50 kph, their emissions are at optimum level. When they move in congested conditions (5-10 kph) emissions double, although this is difficult to quantify without widespread studies.”
He further adds that another benefit is the multiplier effect, which enhances shared mobility through carpooling, more travel in the metro and buses, all of which reduces the per capita emission load. “Since the supply and availability of the entire bus system is lacking in terms of bus numbers and services, Delhi government could not include the two wheelers which are also a major polluting segment. But overall, this scheme is a positive step in the right direction which brings citizen's participation in pollution control, and gives a respite from vehicular emissions and exposure,” reads the email reply.
Chattopadhyay also says that this is essentially a short period emergency measure and one not to be implemented for a long time as people not only feel harassed by it but also find ways to dodge the system through multiple ownership or other ways. The long-term measures, Chattopadhyay says, are an effective public transport system, congestion charges, high parking fees during peak hours, and better connectivity in general.
Odd-and-even is only one of the measures designed to give Delhi clean air. “Already a ban on garbage burning, industries not using Piped Natural Gas (PNG), limitations on construction activities, use of generator sets and others are in place. So, all together if all measures are implemented well, the air quality will benefit,” says Chattopadhyay.