Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE - @suni­ta­nar

IN JAN­UARY 2016, af­ter much hes­i­ta­tion, the Delhi gov­ern­ment took its first real emer­gency ac­tion against the deadly smog— it in­tro­duced an odd and even scheme to ra­tion the num­ber of ve­hi­cles on the road. It is an­other mat­ter that the scheme was rid­dled with ex­emp­tions and so, un­like what is done in other parts of the world when dras­tic and sur­gi­cal ac­tion is taken to curb smog, it had lim­ited impact. But what stunned me was the op­po­si­tion to the scheme—it is un­nec­es­sary, in­con­ve­nient and un-im­pact­ful was the shrill call.

In April, when the Delhi gov­ern­ment re­peated its ex­per­i­ment (by then more for fame than pol­lu­tion), the scheme had lost its sheen to the ex­tent that web­sites that mon­i­tor pol­lu­tion, and even the Cen­tral Pol­lu­tion Con­trol Board (cpcb), de­fied all logic to say that the in­tro­duc­tion of odd-even scheme had, in fact, in­creased pol­lu­tion. This is when all data shows that tak­ing cars off the road—even half of them and even with­out tak­ing off mil­lions of two-wheel­ers—had some pol­lu­tion ben­e­fits. But these ef­forts were lost be­cause of crop-burn­ing fires from neigh­bour­ing states. It was con­ve­nient to dis­miss ac­tion. In­ac­tion then pre­vailed.

This is when we know that com­bus­tion in ve­hi­cles, in­dus­try and ther­mal power plants and garbage burn­ing are the key causes of pol­lu­tion. Dust is an im­por­tant source and its con­trol re­quires en­force­ment. We also know that the move­ment of ve­hi­cles on roads adds to its re-cir­cu­la­tion and when dust is coated with harm­ful emis­sions, it be­comes toxic. So, dust must be con­trolled, but sur­gi­cal ac­tion is re­quired for com­bus­tion sources.

These sources are known in Delhi, across In­dia and across the world. The so­lu­tions are also known. Gov­ern­ments must im­prove the qual­ity of fuel used in ve­hi­cles, fac­to­ries and in power plants. Ide­ally, we should be burn­ing nat­u­ral gas in all hot spot re­gions of the coun­try as it is much lower in emis­sions. Then we need im­prove­ment in ve­hic­u­lar emis­sion tech­nol­ogy. But si­mul­ta­ne­ously, we must make a mo­bil­ity tran­si­tion to pub­lic trans­port so that we can re­duce the sheer num­ber of ve­hi­cles, which trans­lates into pol­lu­tion on our roads. We also need to en­sure that we man­age our garbage in ways that we can seg­re­gate it at homes and com­post it and process it. We can­not burn it. No rocket sci­ence here. The ques­tion is why is it we can­not get our act to­gether to im­ple­ment these ac­tions. In­stead, we look for ev­ery ex­cuse not to act.

My col­league, An­u­mita Roy­chowd­hury, and I de­tail in this spe­cial is­sue of Down To Earth, why In­dia’s tryst with air pol­lu­tion con­trol has been al­ways con­tested and never easy.

For in­stance, take the is­sue of ad­vance­ment of ve­hic­u­lar emis­sion and fuel stan­dards. This was a game-changer in the pe­riod of early 2000, and will be crit­i­cal for future ac­tion to clean the air in Delhi and across In­dia. But it took the Supreme Court in 1999 to drive down the dead­line—against the wills and wishes of au­to­mo­bile com­pa­nies. Their bat­tery of lawyers told the court that it was un­nec­es­sary; in­con­ve­nient and un-im­pact­ful (ring any bells). But it happened. And as this has coun­try­wide reper­cus­sions, it helped re­duce emis­sions across cities. In Oc­to­ber 2016, the Union gov­ern­ment no­ti­fied it will bring BS VI by 2020. This is an ad­vance­ment over what was ear­lier sched­uled to hap­pen in 2028, and is hap­pen­ing once again against the wills and wishes of the au­to­mo­bile com­pa­nies. This will be a game-changer, but it will take time. In the mean­time, BS IV fuel (with 50 ppm of sul­phur as against 350 ppm in BS III) will be avail­able na­tion­wide by April 1, 2017. This is also im­por­tant be­cause we know that be­tween BS III and BS IV tech­nol­ogy, par­tic­u­late emis­sions can be re­duced by some 80 per cent. Once this fuel is avail­able, then retrofitting old ve­hi­cles or even scrap­ping com­mer­cial ve­hi­cles can be in­cen­tivised. Also, by April 1, 2017, all two-wheel­ers will have to meet BS IV norms, which are sig­nif­i­cantly tighter. But we are al­ready learn­ing that the in­dus­try is not pre­pared to move all its buses and trucks to BS IV by April. Why? It says that it has huge in­ven­to­ries and it will take an­other six to eight months to make this move. The two-wheeler man­u­fac­tur­ers, who were given one full year to make the tran­si­tion to cleaner tech­nol­ogy, say that they are try­ing their best, but again, have huge in­ven­to­ries to sell. So, dead­lines to bring new cleaner ve­hi­cles must be post­poned, they say. Un­ac­cept­able we must say.

I could go on with the list. But enough is enough, is what we must say in uni­son. To­day, the only folks who are ben­e­fit­ting from dirty and toxic air are com­pa­nies that man­u­fac­ture masks and air pu­ri­fiers. It should dis­may us that these are the com­pa­nies that are spon­sor­ing pro­grammes on the haz­ards of air pol­lu­tion—this is not the future we want. This is what we must say loudly through­out the year—not just dur­ing win­ters. Then ac­tion will hap­pen. Clean air will hap­pen.

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