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

DO NOT read me wrong. Last fort­night I had said we may breathe eas­ier this win­ter. This does not mean we will breathe clean air. I meant com­pared to last win­ter air pol­lu­tion would be lower be­cause of the ac­tions taken. But be­cause the lev­els are so high, it does not mean we go easy on our com­mon out­rage against pol­lu­tion, or slow down the ac­tions that are needed.

Last win­ter, 53 per cent of the days of Novem­ber were in the se­vere plus—pub­lic health emer­gency level; 32 per cent of De­cem­ber and 45 per cent of Jan­uary. So, re­ally dan­ger­ous and re­ally toxic. This win­ter we can hope for less of such very toxic days. But air qual­ity is still in the very poor or se­vere cat­e­gory and this will stay un­less we do more—and dras­ti­cally.

So, now what? What should be the plan to bring down these lev­els. I clas­sify the needed ac­tions into four cat­e­gories—im­me­di­ate and ur­gent; long-term but nec­es­sary to start im­me­di­ately; nec­es­sary but dif­fi­cult to im­ple­ment and dif­fi­cult but not im­pos­si­ble to do.

Start with the im­me­di­ate cat­e­gory. The fact, in spite of all the noise about air pol­lu­tion, we are do­ing every­thing to make it worse. To­day dirt­i­est fu­els are ex­empt from tax; while clean fu­els are not. Un­der the Goods and Ser­vices Tax (gst), in­dus­tries that use furnace oil type fuel—dirty and toxic—are given a full re­fund. But as nat­u­ral gas is left out of gst, it means that if in­dus­tri­al­ists even want to do their bit for clean air, they can­not. Nat­u­ral gas is taxed heav­ily and no re­fund is pos­si­ble. So, where is the choice to go clean?

Then, we are im­port­ing the world’s dirt­i­est fuel, pet coke, from the US—which has banned its use be­cause of do­mes­tic pol­lu­tion con­cerns—as if we have no prob­lems of our own. China has stopped im­port­ing this fuel. But we al­low it un­der Open Gen­eral Li­cense. Three years ago, we im­ported some 6 mil­lion tonnes of this re­fin­ery by-prod­uct and last year, till March end, we had upped this to 14 mil­lion tonnes. This, com­bined with our do­mes­tic pro­duc­tion of some 12-14 mil­lion tonnes, means that we are eas­ily beat­ing even China’s heavy use of this fuel in their pol­lu­tion hey­days.

No step has been taken to stop the use of this fuel or to set emis­sion stan­dards for it that will con­trol pol­lu­tion. In­stead, this fuel is cheaper as it is un­der gst. So, why are we sur­prised that pol­lu­tion con­tin­ues to kill us and not even softly.

Then there is the long-term, but im­me­di­ate agenda. It is a fact that au­to­mo­biles are the big­gest con­trib­u­tor to pol­lu­tion and most im­por­tantly, diesel emis­sions are car­cino­gens. Cur­rently, the ef­fort is to re­duce pol­lu­tion by first im­prov­ing emis­sion stan­dards and fuel qual­ity and then tight­en­ing pro­ce­dures for check­ing tailpipes of ve­hi­cles on road. But none of this is enough. The fact is that even as we re­duce emis­sions from each ve­hi­cle, we add many more on the road—negat­ing all im­pacts. This, given the fact that so much of In­dia still has to buy and use ve­hi­cles, means that pol­lu­tion will be in­evitable.

The only way ahead is to ramp up pub­lic trans­port at a mas­sive scale. But frankly, this is where noth­ing is hap­pen­ing. Delhi has not added a sin­gle new bus in the past few years; there is no move­ment on in­ter-city pub­lic trans­port in the Na­tional Cap­i­tal Re­gion (ncr); there is just no ef­fort to build roads for pedes­tri­ans or cy­clists. No last mile con­nec­tiv­ity. None. Zilch. This is where we are fail­ing com­pletely.

I put dust from roads, con­struc­tion and burn­ing of garbage in the nec­es­sary but dif­fi­cult to im­ple­ment cat­e­gory. The fact is me­chan­i­cal sweep­ers will not be the an­swer when ev­ery sec­ond road is ei­ther dug up or just does not ex­ist. City gov­ern­ments have to get their act to­gether, not in win­ter months but be­fore, and all the time, to fix this. The same with garbage burn­ing. We can try and put out some big fires be­cause of ex­tra vig­i­lance, but it is a fact that we have no sys­tem for man­age­ment of garbage in our cities that will not in­volve a fire. If a city has a waste dump—like Delhi—then it will be on fire be­cause com­bus­tion will hap­pen in these places. If a city does not have a waste dump—like most of ncr—then the eas­i­est so­lu­tion is to col­lect garbage, dump it and burn it. Our garbage needs a full so­lu­tion that seg­re­gates and pro­cesses waste. No half mea­sures will work.

Fi­nally, there is the prob­lem of crop burn­ing from neigh­bour­ing states of Pun­jab, Haryana and Ut­tar Pradesh. This prob­lem is solv­able, but it is cry­ing for a so­lu­tion that will give farm­ers an al­ter­na­tive use for their crop residue. This is where we need to find a big an­swer and then get it im­ple­mented. Again, no amount of beat­ing our chest will work. We need solutions. We need ac­tion.

Air pol­lu­tion will not go away, till we can make these an­swers work. There are no quick fixes here. Just tough solutions for a tough prob­lem.

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