How to make air poi­sonous!

Delhi leads the way in suck­ing out oxy­gen and mak­ing mil­lions choke on toxic pol­lu­tants ev­ery win­ter. DNA traces how the city lost the gains made from the switch to CNG and failed to im­ple­ment se­cond-gen­er­a­tion re­forms. It’s time to wake up as a host of n

DNA (Delhi) - - FRONT PAGE - Nikhil M Ghanekar cor­re­spon­dent@dnain­

New Delhi: On Tues­day when the Air Qual­ity In­dex (AQI) in Delhi clocked 468 in the most se­vere cat­e­gory — any­thing above 100 is con­sid­ered un­healthy — a state of public health emer­gency was de­clared by the In­dian Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion (IMA). With a steady rise in Delhi’s pol­lu­tion lev­els over the years, the con­tribut­ing fac­tors mak­ing the air dan­ger­ous have also in­creased. Ve­hic­u­lar and in­dus­trial emis­sions re­main at the core of this dire sit­u­a­tion. Rapid ur­ban­i­sa­tion has fu­elled the spread­ing of dust and burn­ing of waste, re­leas­ing par­tic­u­late mat­ters — fine par­ti­cles — which cause heart at­tacks, strokes, lung can­cer, and res­pi­ra­tory ill­nesses.

How­ever, be­fore the Supreme Court (SC) and the Na­tional Green Tri­bunal (NGT) took cog­nizance of the new sources of pol­lu­tion, the En­vi­ron­ment Pol­lu­tion (Preven­tion and Con­trol) Au­thor­ity (EPCA) had raised an alarm about the slide in the gains from the switch to Com­pressed Nat­u­ral Gas (CNG) fuel for com­mer­cial ve­hi­cles.

Be­gin­ning April 2003, the EPCA sub­mit­ted re­ports to the SC and the state gov­ern­ments. The top court-ap­pointed body doc­u­mented and em­pha­sised that while the SC’s or­ders “sta­bilised run away pol­lu­tion”, pol­lu­tion lev­els were ris­ing, and that “there can­not be a let-up in the city’s ef­fort”.

The se­cond-gen­er­a­tion re­forms, as elab­o­rated by the EPCA, com­prised a multi-pronged ap­proach that in­cluded new mass-emis­sion stan­dards, in-use stan­dards for two-wheel­ers and cars, tighter pol­lu­tion un­der con­trol (PUC) norms, bring­ing par­ity be­tween diesel and petrol prices, by-pass­ing of goods traf­fic, in­te­grated public trans­port sys­tem to re­duce ve­hic­u­lar con­ges­tion, gas-based fuel in power plants and pro­hi­bi­tion on pet coke and fur­nace oils.

With the ex­cep­tion of leapfrog­ging to the Bharat Stage-VI emis­sions tech­nol­ogy, ban on the pol­lut­ing pet coke and fur­nace oils and an en­vi­ron­ment com­pen­sa­tion charge on trucks, a large part of the se­cond-gen­er­a­tion of re­forms re­main stuck on the ground. The EPCA mem­ber and Cen­tre for Science and En­vi­ron­ment di­rec­tor gen­eral Su­nita Narain said that while the SC has given sig­nif­i­cant or­ders on dis­con­tin­u­ing reg­is­tra­tion of Bharat Stage-III ve­hi­cles, three or four big ob­jec­tives are yet to be achieved. “We have been ask­ing for re­straints on ve­hi­cles through public trans­port and park­ing pol­icy... but no­body is mov­ing on it and Delhi has fewer buses than be­fore,” said Narain.

The EPCA is also do­ing a fresh sur­vey of com­mer­cial traf­fic at Delhi check­posts to im­prove the en­force­ment of turn­ing away traf­fic from en­ter­ing the city. Narain added that the man­age­ment of dust, garbage, and waste burn­ing are gov­er­nance is­sues that re­quire boots on the ground. “The EPCA can­not do it, the gov­ern­ment needs to do it, there is a need for po­lit­i­cal will.”

In 2014, in its re­port on ‘pri­or­ity mea­sures to re­duce air pol­lu­tion and pro­tect public health’, the EPCA once again de­tailed be­fore the SC the con­tin­u­ing slide in the fight against the cri­sis.

It high­lighted that par­tic­u­late mat­ter (PM) 10 lev­els had re­duced by 16 per cent be­tween 2002 and 2007, a pe­riod when the CNG tran­si­tion kicked in and plateaued. Then, par­tic­u­late lev­els in­creased “dra­mat­i­cally” by 75 per cent. Be­tween 2002 and 2012, ve­hi­cle num­bers shot up by 97 per cent, con­tribut­ing enor­mously to the pol­lu­tion load, the re­port said.

To put things into per­spec­tive, be­tween 1998 and 2017, Delhi’s mo­tor ve­hi­cle pop­u­la­tion rose from 32.10 lakh in 1998 to 1.05 crore in May 2017. In Delhi alone, the ur­ban cover rose from 62.35 per cent in 2001 to 75.09 per cent in 2011, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial data.

With the SC or­der that green cess be levied on diesel cars, its sale has shown a dip to some ex­tent, as per in­dus­try data. But now, stub­ble burn­ing has be­come one of the big­gest ex­ter­nal fac­tors con­tribut­ing to Delhi’s toxic air.

Across Pun­jab, Haryana and Ut­tar Pradesh, over 20 mil­lion tonnes of paddy straw is burnt be­tween Oc­to­ber and mid-Novem­ber, re­leas­ing plumes of smoke that travel over to Del­hiNCR with winds. While the NCR states had banned stub­ble burn­ing through no­ti­fi­ca­tions, the NGT too passed a judg­ment in 2015, de­tail­ing mea­sures to pre­vent the prac­tice.

The im­ple­men­ta­tion, though, has failed to a great ex­tent. Nearly two years since its or­der, the NGT pulled up Pun­jab, Haryana and Ut­tar Pradesh on Thurs­day for hav­ing failed to curb the prac­tice of crop stub­ble burn­ing, and sought de­tailed re­ports from the states. The Pun­jab gov­ern­ment, though, has sub­mit­ted to the green court that com­pared to 2016, there have been 29,000 fewer in­stances of stub­ble burn­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to se­nior ad­vo­cate MC Me­hta, “The gov­ern­ment had no clear pol­icy to bat­tle pol­lu­tion, nei­ther in the past nor now. It is the SC that has played a ma­jor role in the public in­ter­est and come to our res­cue. Not just met­ros, but towns are also suf­fer­ing and that is the next big chal­lenge.”

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