Air Pollution in Delhi - What Can Be Done?

Air Pollution Affects Everyone, and Needs Multi-Dimensional Solutions (image: Indian Express)
There is enough discussion already on the politics of tackling the air pollution crisis that has engulfed Delhi-NCR right now. I am not going to dwell on that. What I will instead do is to explain the causes of air pollution in Delhi, and how a graded strategy plan much in line with the GRAP of the Supreme Court appointed EPCA is necessary to understand just what it will take to solve the problem. People may think that it is a problem only for Delhi. However, other cities should also take a leaf and tackle the problem, as in their case numbers are not necessarily under attention.

Air pollution in Delhi-NCR has always targeted two main culprits - transportation and industry. The role of industrial emissions and transportation has been discussed due to its evident nature for decades now, with the first public interest litigation being filed in this matter way back in the 1980s by the doyen of environmental law, Mahesh Chand Mehta. The problem has persisted despite several steps being announced, since they were myopically addressing the problem within Delhi’s jurisdictional boundary. It is no secret that CNG bus fleets were introduced in Delhi only when the Supreme Court threatened to dismiss Shiela Dikshit’s government for continued contempt of court. Even the Delhi Metro was actually a response filed by Sahib Singh Verma’s government as part of the plan to control air pollution in Delhi. Fuel quality switches were also enabled by the court orders.

Today, the problem has gone back to square one for these reasons and much more. While actual emissions from industries within the city came down significantly, the problem of running industry on diesel and HFO gensets due to a horrendous power supply from the discoms supplying to cities in the NCR Region rendered the measure ineffective. Diesel and HFO contribute not only gaseous emissions but also significant load of particulate matter (PM), the true silent killer. Similar gains made with a CNG switch were lost because of too many diesel cars entering in the private vehicle market, driven by a perverse diesel subsidy regime that was done away with only in 2014. Diesel vehicles, however good, still emit PM at harmful enough levels, when added up in the huge numbers in which they get added up in the city daily. Moreover, two wheeler engine technology is still not strictly regulated, making their share to Delhi’s air pollution far bigger than one would perceive. Add to it the discrepancy in the quality of fuel supplied inside Delhi-NCR as well as the applicable vehicle emission standard due to the ‘tier of city’ rule, and we have a crisis of our own making entirely.

Construction has become a headache very recently, and is the city’s bane in every sense. Endless digging for a host of purposes, be it private or public structures, and improper dust management and disposal have made the situation bad. It gets compounded due to re-suspension from the roads, and in weather conditions like the present one, there is no escaping the cloud hanging, with its heady and toxic cocktail of gas and particles.

Weather’s role was not understood properly till very recently. An airshed approach should have been adopted long back, since weather phenomena has widely been kown to play a pivotal role in creating the problem. Smog is a reaction due to weather phenomena, plenty of which is seen. Stubble burning drifts from Punjab and Haryana are not a unique feature globally - Malaysia and Singapore face the wrath of burning forests from Indonesia similarly. It would pass but for lack of wind in Delhi and an easterly front coming up that traps the gases into a big bowl, since all these regions are essentially one big airshed. Stubble burning has its role in sending smoke, and needs comprehensive planning.

Local human habits have a role to play as well. Open chulhas, sigris and tandoors are still used in the city in many areas, becoming a major contributor to the problem. Waste burning is also a major issue in Delhi’s winter season, given the failure of air to rise and disperse unlike summers. Despite efforts, waste burning have not seen a successful control strategy. Food habits are difficult to change till suitable alternatives are not identified.

SOLUTIONSNone of the problems have a short term solution. Sure, you can ban generators, curtail construction activity to some extent, spray some water around, quickly vacuum broom roads, and apply odd even policies. All these however are piecemeal efforts at best. What is needed is a strong mid term and long term plan to face the crisis head-on, else the problem will never go away.

Let us start with low hanging fruits first:
  1. Ensure non-stop electricity supply in ALL areas. Only then will the generator ban be effective.
  2. Ensure that construction activity complies with the stringent norms of dust control they promise. Even municipal authorities should be penalizing people who do not take the necessary mitigation measures at individual sites. All powers should be given to enable that. A roadmap to enable this enforcement through effective policy change should be prioritized.
  3. Ensure waste management and disposal network is strengthened. Burning of waste should be curtailed strongly by ensuring segregation and recycling, right at the community level. Penalize and shame people who fail to do so. Instead of fining, jail people who are responsible for burning waste. At the same time, teach sanitation workers the necessity to avoid waste burning.
  4. Gensets should switch fuel. Make sure gas supplies run, and gensets using the same are available. Gas is a cleaner fuel especially for particulate matter.
  5. Tandoors, chulhas and sigris should be made all electric. Special tariffs can be arranged. Switching away from coal and wood is imperative and easy. In slum areas, one can even accelerate the Ujjawala scheme through electric hotplates and induction plates for cooking.

Next layer of solutions are tougher, and are not easy, still being pursued. However, it must be accelerated to 2019 instead of 2020, ensuring earlier resolution to the problem:
  1. Ensure vehicle standards are same for all vehicles irrespective of the city tier. It will face some resistance but will go a long way in tackling the issue.
  2. Vehicle scrap yards must be set up. All vehicles greater than 10 year old must be disincentivized. They should not be allowed to ply even in other cities by monitoring the same through the national vehicle inventory database that already exists.
  3. Fuel standards should be stringent. 2020 is the target date for Bharat Standard VI. It should however be accelerated further by one year. Technology is not an issue. Oil marketing companies can be funded for the same through a National Clean Energy Fund that was being so far used for GST compensation.
  4. Public transport systems must be prioritized and expanded, while addressing last mile connectivity issues. Metro rails or bus corridors cannot be isolated solutions.
  5. Strongly push for electric vehicles. While E-rickshaws are being pushed for employment, people have completely forgotten electric two wheelers and four wheelers. Even a 15% road share deployment will have a huge impact. Funding them will need innovative financing mechanisms, which can and must be pursued.
  6. A timeline should be identified for putting all major construction activity to a full stop. Piecemeal, start and sputter efforts of random digging and public infrastructure construction works, including housing, must come to a halt. Permissions should be followed up with stringent penalties if dust control measures are not followed to the hilt.
  7. Make sure that all industries comply to air emission norms, and encash bank guarantees wherever necessary to set examples.
  8. Ensure surplus low cost finance is available for introducing pollution control measures. Such industries across all sectors should also be provided some kind of incentive or benefit over polluting ones through regulatory measures.
These are just some measures. The debate is endless; the answers are too. It is not a one off event, and not going to affect only Delhi, and therefore needs to be a collective effort. As the UN Representative to India aptly put it about Delhi's pollution today:
“Environmental situations such as the current Delhi smog cannot be tackled just by addressing the issue of the number of cars or banning firecrackers. There has to be an all- encompassing approach.”


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