Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE -

IT IS good that deadly air pol­lu­tion in Delhi has be­come na­tional head­line.But it is bad that we are fail­ing to deal with it and find an­swers that are com­men­su­rate with the scale of the prob­lem.It is time to un­der­stand what we have done and the ac­tions we need to take ur­gently and de­ci­sively. Oth­er­wise, next win­ter—barely five months away—will be even more se­vere and haz­ardous. While for­eign­ers can choose not to live in pol­luted Delhi, most of us do not have that op­tion.Let’s also be clear that home air pu­ri­fiers and fil­ters are not the so­lu­tion even if the rich in the city be­lieve that they can shut their houses and clean their own pri­vate air.

Some 16 years ago, the Cen­tre for Science and En­vi­ron­ment (cse) is­sued an ad­ver­tise­ment: “Roll down the win­dow of your bullet-proof car, Mr Prime Min­is­ter. The se­cu­rity threat is not the gun, it is the air of Delhi.” This was the time when the air of Delhi was full of black smoke, fuel and emis­sion stan­dards were vir­tu­ally non-ex­is­tent and mo­tori­sa­tion was just be­gin­ning to take off. The agenda for ac­tion—also listed by cse in the public no­tice—was to ad­vance the roadmap for fuel-emis­sion stan­dards; re­strict diesel ve­hi­cles and make the tran­si­tion to a much cleaner fuel, com­pressed nat­u­ral gas (cng).

Not any­more. Since 2007 pol­lu­tion has risen to dan­ger­ously toxic lev­els. This win­ter, the level of PM 2.5—tiny par­ti­cles emit­ted from ve­hi­cles that can go deep into the lungs and en­ter the blood stream—re­mained three-four times higher than the safety stan­dard. In fact, in Novem­ber, De­cem­ber and Jan­uary, air was clas­si­fied as “se­verely pol­luted” for over 65 per cent of the days. Ac­cord­ing to the gov­ern­ment’s own air qual­ity in­dex, this meant pol­lu­tion was so bad that it could cause “res­pi­ra­tory ef­fects even on healthy peo­ple”. It is un­safe to breathe. This is what we must re­alise.

So, what has hap­pened to make Delhi res­i­dents, once again, wheeze, choke and die be­cause of dirty air? In the past decade, since the in­tro­duc­tion of cng, some things have changed. First, there has been an ex­plo­sion of per­sonal ve­hi­cles—near 100 per cent in­crease in reg­is­tra­tion in Delhi alone. So, even as each car has be­come cleaner be­cause of tighter emis­sion stan­dards and bet­ter qual­ity of fuel, the num­ber has in­creased ex­po­nen­tially. The net re­sult on pol­lu­tion is the same.

Sec­ond, while in 2000 diesel cars were only 4 per cent of the to­tal sales, this in­creased to 50 per cent by mid-2000.Each diesel car is legally al­lowed to emit four to seven times more than the petrol vari­ant. Pol­lu­tion is in­evitable. Third, the by­pass road, or­dered by the Supreme Court in 2004,was not built. So, some 50,000 trucks us­ing dirty fuel and even dirt­ier tech­nol­ogy transit the city.

One new source of pol­lu­tion has made an en­try. Post mid2000, Punjab and Haryana di­rected farm­ers to de­lay paddy trans­plan­ta­tion to re­duce ground­wa­ter us­age in peak sum­mer. Now farm­ers have no time to pre­pare the field be­tween har­vest­ing paddy and grow­ing wheat, so they burn the straw. In Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber, just as win­ter in­ver­sion is set­tling in, smoke from this fire makes its way to the al­ready pol­luted air­shed of Delhi. The coun­try im­me­di­ately needs an ag­gres­sive roadmap for clean fuel and ve­hi­cle tech­nol­ogy. This is not ac­cept­able to pow­er­ful ve­hi­cle man­u­fac­tur­ers. Even as oil com­pa­nies have started the sup­ply of cleaner fuel across north In­dia since April 1, 2015, car com­pa­nies have suc­ceeded in get­ting an ex­ten­sion for sup­ply of clean ve­hi­cles from the sur­face trans­port min­istry. Now, the same car com­pa­nies are busy ar­gu­ing that they should con­tinue to have the li­cence to pol­lute. They want 8-10 years to move to the cleaner ve­hi­cle tech­nol­ogy Europe uses to­day. These com­pa­nies need to un­der­stand that we have all run out of time and air to breathe.

The other steps are equally ur­gent, from mon­i­tor­ing air qual­ity to smog alerts, so that we know when it is ad­vis­able to take pre­cau­tions be­cause of bad air. But most crit­i­cal is the need to mas­sively aug­ment our public trans­porta­tion sys­tems, from bus and metro to foot­paths and cy­cle tracks, so that we can take a bus and then cross the road or just walk.We also need car re­straints. Park­ing rates and fines for illegal park­ing need to be in­creased and then en­forced. To­day we have a hand­ful of cranes and a sprin­kling of traf­fic po­lice to stop illegal park­ing. This can­not go on.

In mid-1990s, we pub­lished a re­port on air pol­lu­tion and called it Slow Mur­der. That’s what it is—de­lib­er­ate and deadly. Noth­ing less.

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