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
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.”