‘The aim is pol­lu­tion con­trol, not the­atre’

If we op­pose ev­ery so­lu­tion to the prob­lem of air pol­lu­tion, how will we ever breathe clean air, asks the en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist

The Hindu - - OPED - Bindu Sha­jan Per­ap­padan

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Su­nita Narain has been fight­ing for clean air for decades. The Delhi-based Cen­tre for Sci­ence and En­vi­ron­ment, with which she has been as­so­ci­ated and now serves as di­rec­tor gen­eral, led the shift to com­pressed nat­u­ral gas in Delhi, to re­duce air pol­lu­tion. Ms. Narain is on the statu­tory body set up un­der the En­vi­ron­ment Pro­tec­tion Act as well as the En­vi­ron­ment Pol­lu­tion (Pre­ven­tion and Con­trol) Au­thor­ity (EPCA), a Supreme Court-ap­pointed panel to mon­i­tor pol­lu­tion in the Delhi-Na­tional Cap­i­tal Re­gion (NCR). Ex­cerpts from an in­ter­view on the mag­ni­tude of the prob­lem and the way for­ward:

Ev­ery breath we are in­hal­ing at the mo­ment is toxic. How have we reached this point?

No­body is re­ally se­ri­ous about pol­lu­tion is all I can say. It’s not sud­den. In fact, pol­lu­tion last year was worse than it is this year. What we don’t re­alise is that we aren’t tak­ing ad­e­quate steps to bring down pol­lu­tion. What­ever we are do­ing is too lit­tle, too late.

The kind of pol­lu­tion that we are see­ing now is in the en­tire re­gion — it’s not just Delhi; Patna is more pol­luted. Any­where you start plac­ing pol­lu­tion mon­i­tor­ing equip­ment, you re­alise that the air you breathe is toxic.

And please don’t un­der­es­ti­mate the health im­pact of this. This is re­ally se­ri­ous. It’s time we re­alised that if we don’t get se­ri­ous about tack­ling air pol­lu­tion, we will have such episodes through­out win­ter. Also be clear that this is not just about Pun­jab and Haryana and the burn­ing of crops. What we saw this time was a weather pat­tern which ba­si­cally, they are say­ing, brought winds from Iraq, Saudi Ara­bia and Kuwait. This brought a lot of dust, huge wind storms which col­lided with the wind sys­tem com­ing from the east which was bring­ing mois­ture. And that is deadly be­cause the mois­ture locks in the dust and be­comes a

cloud. At the same time there was no wind at the ground level. So when you and I felt that we were suf­fo­cat­ing, that is what it was. Delhi is equally to blame. The cars in Delhi today are chok­ing us.

Are Pun­jab and Haryana to be blamed?

This time, Pun­jab and Haryana also con­trib­uted be­cause of crop burn­ing. But re­mem­ber, in the months to come, when win­ter is se­vere, even when this fac­tor (crop burn­ing) goes, we will still have pol­lu­tion. Last year, the peak came in De­cem­ber and Jan­uary.

I don’t want to get into this great game of the Delhi gov­ern­ment — ev­ery time there is this chaos they say, ‘What about Pun­jab? Pun­jab did it!’ I think it’s time we grew up and I would re­ally urge our politi­cians to grow up be­cause oth­er­wise they are tak­ing away our lives and the lives of our chil­dren.

Are the govern­ments do­ing too lit­tle, too late? With ev­ery episode of se­vere air pol­lu­tion, there is a mad rush to en­force ur­gent but tem­po­rary mea­sures.

Ab­so­lutely! Please un­der­stand that the odd-even (car scheme) and the shut­ting of schools are all emer­gency ac­tions. Last year, when we had a cri­sis like this in Novem­ber, we had gone to court and said that there are two ways in which govern­ments all over the world deal with this. One is that they have an emer­gency re­sponse, which is that when things are so bad they ask, ‘what do we do?’ Last year, no­body knew what to do; there was a sort of help­less­ness. And two, what we said (to the court) was that emer­gency plans are not sub­sti­tutes for long-term mea­sures. We need both be­cause till you have your long-term mea­sures kick­ing in, we must have a re­sponse.

So the court asked the En­vi­ron­ment Min­istry to come up with what is now called the Graded Re­sponse Ac­tion Plan (GRAP). It’s now in force and we gave a re­port to the court on Mon­day on the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the GRAP: what hap­pened and what we learnt.

One of the big things we learnt was that yes, it was im­por­tant to have the GRAP be­cause at least the emer­gency plans could kick in other than the odd and even scheme which be­came a po­lit­i­cal foot­ball be­tween the AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) and the NGT (Na­tional Green Tri­bunal). The other mea­sures are be­ing en­forced across the NCR, not just Delhi.

So yes, there has been a re­sponse to the emer­gency. And ac­cord­ing to IIT-M (In­dian In­sti­tute of Trop­i­cal Me­te­o­rol­ogy), Pune, this re­sponse plan has re­duced pol­lu­tion lev­els by about 15% (com­pared) to what it would have been over the week­end. So please re­alise that the kind of crit­i­cal pol­lu­tion lev­els that we see today would have been 20% higher if we hadn’t taken this emer­gency re­sponse. What we said to the court on Mon­day is that we need to im­prove this.

There are four prob­lems that we have no­ticed. One, the fore­cast­ing data were very poor. On Novem­ber 6, we had no in­di­ca­tion of the kind of cloud and the weather pat­tern that would change. It was on 7th, when pol­lu­tion spiked, that we were told that pol­lu­tion lev­els are high. We im­me­di­ately di­rected ac­tion. But then it takes time for govern­ments to gear up and take ac­tion, which, to their credit, they did. By 8th, or­ders had been passed and by the next day ev­ery­thing was en­forced. But the fact is that we needed data ear­lier, so we are now talk­ing to the In­dian Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal Depart­ment to say that we have to in­te­grate weather fore­cast with pol­lu­tion mon­i­tor­ing.

The sec­ond thing that we have told the court is that we need a bet­ter sys­tem and pro­to­col in place to in­form peo­ple about spiked pol­lu­tion lev­els.

Third, we are say­ing this plan is weak be­cause a com­pre­hen­sive plan hasn’t been put in place. For in­stance, one of the big is­sues of GRAP is that when pol­lu­tion spikes — say, in Paris — a pro­to­col is put in place and you ramp up pub­lic trans­port. Paris makes pub­lic trans­port free. Or you in­ten­sify pub­lic trans­port, in­crease car park­ing costs, and take the pres­sure off cars. And if it doesn’t sort out, the next stage is the odd and even scheme.

Do we have the in­fra­struc­ture to bring in long-term and emer­gency mea­sures to en­sure that we don’t find our­selves in this state again?

In our case we have no pub­lic trans­port. Be­cause for four years you have done noth­ing about it be­sides blam­ing and pass­ing the buck. Today what we have is a gover­nance cri­sis. You re­main in an emer­gency mode if you don’t deal with this cri­sis.

The facts of this cri­sis today are scary. We are in se­vere-plus (air qual­ity) today, but we are in se­vere plus when ev­ery ac­tion in the book has been di­rected — con­struc­tion is banned, in­dus­tries are banned, ther­mal plants have been shut down, brick kilns have been banned, gen­er­a­tor sets have been banned, the so-called pub­lic trans­port sys­tem has been in­ten­si­fied... The only thing we haven’t been able to do is to take the cars off the road. And de­spite all this, we are in se­vere-plus mode. It just tells you the scale of the prob­lem and the scale of the in­ter­ven­tion that is needed.

My prob­lem today is that every­one is out­raged but no­body backs a so­lu­tion. Ev­ery time you pro­pose a so­lu­tion, some­body con­tests it and then get­ting that so­lu­tion im­ple­mented takes the wind out of you. My ques­tion is, if clean air is everybody’s busi­ness, then why such op­po­si­tion? What about the health of the peo­ple? What about the health of our chil­dren?

What does the EPCA pro­pose as the way for­ward?

The EPCA has been given the re­spon­si­bil­ity of di­rect­ing ac­tion as far as GRAP is con­cerned. We have di­rected ac­tion this time. We are not go­ing to lift the se­vere-plus level un­less the air qual­ity im­proves for at least 48 hours. We are also go­ing to try to im­prove GRAP so that it be­comes more re­spon­sive and ef­fec­tive. We are go­ing to be tak­ing this up and fight­ing for it.

But be­yond that, we need govern­ments to step in, we need clean fuel — gas or elec­tric­ity — not just for Del­hiNCR, but for the whole of In­dia. And we have to have pub­lic trans­port on a scale that you can ac­tu­ally get rid of your car. Today we can’t en­force any car re­stric­tion mea­sures be­cause we have no pub­lic trans­port and everybody passes the buck around.

And then we need gover­nance so that you don’t burn garbage, you man­age your dust on the road, you make sure con­struc­tion ac­tiv­i­ties are lim­ited… I mean, it’s not rocket sci­ence. But the point is, do we even have a gov­ern­ment which is se­ri­ous enough to see this through in the com­ing years, not just the few days when pol­lu­tion is crit­i­cal?

Is In­dia dis­play­ing enough lead­er­ship at the state, na­tional and in­ter­na­tional lev­els to en­sure a bet­ter en­vi­ron­ment for its cit­i­zens?

Why is the gov­ern­ment not ac­count­able? And why are we tak­ing it? Be­cause we don’t have the abil­ity to ask hard ques­tions, we don’t look at air pol­lu­tion as a se­ri­ous is­sue, we get up when the cri­sis is hap­pen­ing and we go to sleep when the cri­sis is over. That’s the prob­lem. And that is what the politi­cians know… they can play with our lives.

Every­one is com­pla­cent and peo­ple are suf­fer­ing in ev­ery State. Peo­ple in Haryana and Pun­jab are suf­fer­ing as much as peo­ple in Delhi. What we have today is an as­sault. What we are not un­der­stand­ing is that this will not go away till we push back on a na­tional scale. Not these wimpy ac­tions... get a few buses, we will en­force a bit of a ban here and there... it will not work. Odd and even is an emer­gency ac­tion. In coun­tries that brought this in, it was done as an emer­gency mea­sure with no ex­cep­tions and for 24 hours.

Govern­ments have to un­der­stand that the aim is pol­lu­tion con­trol, not the­atre. We are mute spec­ta­tors to a the­atre that is hap­pen­ing today in front of us.

Does In­dia have a strong voice when it comes to cli­mate change and en­sur­ing that it is able to be­come an en­vi­ron­men­tally safe na­tion?

In­dia must have a real voice. To me what was most em­bar­rass­ing, and my head hangs in shame, is when United Air­lines de­clared that they will stop fly­ing to Delhi be­cause of the smog. My head hangs in shame know­ing that my gov­ern­ment im­ports all the garbage that the U.S. is ex­port­ing to us today. They are ex­port­ing pet coke (a petroleum in­dus­try byprod­uct) to us be­cause they have do­mes­tic re­stric­tions to use pet coke, be­cause they care about their pol­lu­tion. We are im­port­ing it be­cause, as the Min­istry said in court, it is a cheap fuel and there are eco­nomic in­ter­ests in­volved. So let’s be clear. If we want to fight the cli­mate war, we have to set our own house in order. And we can’t al­low our heads to hang in shame and for us to be told that you are so pol­luted that we don’t even want to come to your coun­try. I feel de­feated… we just don’t seem to un­der­stand the enor­mity of it.

And we must have a strong voice in­ter­na­tion­ally. Our fight on cli­mate change is to ar­gue for jus­tice, eq­ui­table rights over the at­mos­phere. To strengthen this fight, we must make sure that we can hold our head up in front of the whole world.

Why is the gov­ern­ment not ac­count­able? And why are we tak­ing it? Be­cause we don’t have the abil­ity to ask hard ques­tions, we don’t look at air pol­lu­tion as a se­ri­ous is­sue.We get up when the cri­sis is hap­pen­ing and we go to sleep when it’s over.

Emer­gency plans are not sub­sti­tutes for long-term mea­sures. We need both.

PHOTO: SAN­DEEP SAX­ENA ■

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