Only Planning and Political Will Can Stop Delhi from Becoming ‘Gas Chamber’ This Year Too

Nitya Thirumalai
experts are hopeful that this year will be comparatively better, at least for Delhi, if central and state governments come together and deal with “systemic loopholes”.

As winters approach and air quality continues to worsen sharply in Delhi, a political slugfest seems to be in the offing over the vitiated surroundings of capital and adjoining states of north India.

Manish Sisodia, the deputy Chief Minister of Delhi, has expressed fears of the capital turning into a “gas-chamber” once again in the coming months. On Thursday, he said that the central government has “failed” to take adequate steps to deal with air pollution.

Sisodia also hit out at the governments of Haryana and Punjab for not disbursing subsidy to farmers so they could use machines to remove crop stubble than burn it, which causes tremendous amount of smog.

Former Punjab deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal accused Chief Minister Amarinder Singh on Twitter of not incentivising “even one farmer” to prevent the stubble burning. Singh hit back at Badal, saying the Centre has only given Rs 269 crore out of the Rs 665 crore sanctioned for stubble management.

These leaders may be driving a political point home and searching for a face-saver before smog chokes Delhi and its adjoining areas once again, but the air quality is already deteriorating fast. Crackers during Diwali and the drop in temperature in the coming days will only compound the problem.

However, experts are hopeful that this year will be comparatively better, at least for Delhi, if central and state governments come together and deal with “systemic loopholes”.

“At least now we have a policy and plan in place (to control pollution in Delhi and NCR) and we know what to do. We also know who should be held responsible or accountable for this and we also have a timeline for implementation (of steps earmarked to control pollution)” says Anumita Roychowdhury of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

However, Roychowdhury acknowledges the problem. “Everything depends on whether we have the clear implementation and enforcement system in place. This year, the whole mantra is execution and the scale of implementation,” she says.

A few steps taken recently can help in controlling pollution and help the authorities.

— Delhi is now coal power-free after the Badarpur power plant was shut.

— Since April this year BS–VI quality (equivalent to Euro-VI) fuel is being sold in Delhi which has five times less Sulphur content than the fuel sold in rest of India.

— The capital now has an approved a list of fuels which can be used. Several dirty fuels, including petroleum coke and furnace oil, have been already banned.

With these steps, the coordination of central and Delhi governments with bordering states and action against various forms of pollution is mandatory.

“We all know air pollution can never be bound by administrative or political boundaries, it travels all across depending on wind direction and velocity. So just focusing on farmers or only within Delhi is not going to solve the health emergency crisis. We need a holistic and comprehensive approach which covers big air sheds and multiple sources in a time-bound and targeted manner with fixed accountability,” says Sunil Dahiya of Greenpeace India.

Last winter was the first time when the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) was implemented in the capital. Under GRAP, several preventive steps are taken when the quality of air vitiates. Last year, actions earmarked for ‘poor’ and ‘very poor’ air quality were implemented throughout the winter under GRAP. These actions included closing of brick kilns, shutting down the coal power plant in Badarpur and banning generator sets.

However, in November last year, when pollution shot up to critically high levels, additional steps were taken like not allowing the trucks to enter the city and stopping construction activity. That was the second filter of preventive measures to reduce the pollution levels.

A Comprehensive Action Plan for air pollution control (CAP) for Delhi and NCR has also been notified now, under which long-term and continuous measures are to be taken by the government throughout the year. Though the implementation is the responsibility of state governments, the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) is directly responsible for overseeing the implementation of GRAP, while the environment ministry oversees the implementation of CAP. However, in the absence of larger systematic reforms, the scale and scope of the steps taken is very limited.

Therefore, even if the use of gensets is stopped in the capital, they remain in use in NCR region. “Given the irregular and erratic power supply, if gensets are banned in NCR, it may come to a complete halt and it won’t be a possible for us to run the business,” says one shopkeeper in Ghaziabad.

Other problems are large dispersed sources of pollution like waste burning, landfill fires and illegal construction activities in Delhi and NCR. “Though steps have been taken in formal sectors like banning pet coke and shutting down the coal power plant, waste burning continues across Delhi-NCR. You really require massive enforcement capacity in all departments across Delhi-NCR to prevent this,” says Anumita Roychowdhury.

Enhancing parking fee 3 to 4 times to curb soaring levels of pollution is one of the listed steps by EPCA under GRAP, but in the absence of a strict parking management plan, the purpose is completely defeated. There are no clear areas earmarked in most of the city where people can or cannot park the vehicles.

A recent report prepared by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and Pune-based The Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) clearly points out the need for a well-equipped public transport as 28% of PM 2.5 contribution is from transport system in which pollution by two-wheelers, three-wheelers and cars adds up to around 16%.

Nevertheless, the intensification of public transport system is still in a limbo as the required number of buses have still not been purchased by Delhi government. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said last month that first batch of 1000 e-buses is expected to arrive by second quarter of next year but that is too late and too little as the city needs more than 10,000 buses for a robust public transport.