New Delhi: Delhi’s Environment Minister Gopal Rai has said even though stubble burning is still a problem, contributing to Delhi’s rising pollution levels as the winter rolls in, the Aam Aadmi Party government is well prepared to attack local contributors such as vehicles, dust and polluting industries.
In an interview to ThePrint, Gopal Rai said the city was facing a “new situation” thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the Arvind Kejriwal-led government’s focus is on controlling vehicular pollution with a more “innovative idea” than the three iterations of the ‘odd-even’ vehicle rationing scheme.
“We are kicking off the ‘red light on, gaadi (car) off’ campaign Wednesday. We did a detailed study wherein we realised that one crore cars are registered in Delhi and an average of 15-20 minutes are spent at red lights,” he said, adding that people keeping the engine on at such stops was adding to pollution levels.
Rai elaborated that this hands-on campaign will enable people to protect their own lives, and make a 15-20 per cent difference to pollution levels.
The Delhi government’s ‘odd-even’ scheme is a traffic rationing measure under which private vehicles with registration numbers ending with an odd digit will be allowed on roads on odd-numbered dates, and those with an even digit on even-numbered dates. The scheme has been run three times — twice in 2016 and once in November 2019.
“We managed to reduce air pollution by 25 per cent last year, but this time, people have a greater fear (of pollution) because the coronavirus is already in the air and they are worried about breathing issues,” the minister said.
He added that the need of the hour is to be alert and not panic or get scared.
“There is a need for people to be more proactive this time. We have adopted the ‘odd-even’ policy in the past, but this year, we are going all-out,” Rai said, pointing to other schemes that are in the pipeline. “The 13 pollution hotspots spread across areas where pollution is greater are being regularly monitored at the micro level.”
The AAP government is working on a number of measures, including an anti-dust campaign, a first-of-its-kind war room, ways to address stubble burning by farmers in neighbouring states, a tree transplantation policy, and an electric vehicle policy, Rai said.
The Kejriwal government will also use a bio-decomposer technique to convert crop stubble into compost, which is deemed a cost-effective way to deal with air pollution caused due to stubble burning.
Speaking about this technique, called ‘Pusa decomposer’, Gopal Rai said a lot of research went into making a liquid formulation using decomposer capsules and readily available inputs, fermenting it over 8-10 days, and then spraying the mixture on fields with crop stubble to ensure speedy bio-decomposition of the stubble.
The technique is expected to decrease the use of fertilisers and increase the productivity of farm soil.
Rai further explained that industries in Delhi have been making use of “very poisonous fuel”, but have been convinced by the government to change.
“There were at least 1,500 such factories of which we have already shifted 1,400 on CNG,” he said, adding that vehicular pollution continued to be a cause of concern. “The electric vehicle policy is a step in that direction, but we have come up with a first-of-its-kind war room where dedicated teams sit and ensure proper coordination.”
Asked if air pollution year after year ends up becoming more of a political matter, helping in passing the buck to governments of neighbouring states, Rai said coordination and cooperation among states was key.
“Some things are not in our control when it comes to the environment, and hence, we need to find a solution collectively,” he said. “Environment and pollution does not understand the language of barriers.”
The problem of stubble burning
Commenting on how stubble burning contributes to about 40 per cent of Delhi’s air pollution, and what caused the other 60 per cent, the minister said: “I don’t want to get into numbers. Delhi has the same people and the source of pollution here is also the same.”
He pointed out how air quality deteriorates in September and October. “We even compared the visual images taken by NASA on 1, 3, 5 and 15 October, and we noticed that stubble burning has been increasing in areas surrounding Delhi, so one cannot overlook the correlation,” he said.
Rai added that the change is more visible when the weather changes in Delhi and the pollution comes to a lower level when the wind blows, so “of course, there is direct pollution in Delhi too; we cannot blame only external sources for pollution in the national capital”.
He said thermal power plants inside Delhi had been closed, but there were 11 more within a 300 km radius, which have already been given two deadlines to shut down, but have failed to do so, and that he has already written to the Central Pollution Control Board
Other steps required, according to Rai, include action against illegal operation of brick kilns.
A ban on diesel generators, except for emergency purposes, has also come into force in Delhi as part of the Graded Response Action Plan. “Why can’t Haryana do the same?” Rai asked, adding that since people from various states reside in Delhi, it is the moral responsibility of all state governments to ensure a safe environment for the city’s people.
‘Environment ministers can’t do everything’
Chief Minister Kejriwal said Monday that environment ministers alone cannot handle such a major crisis, and urged the central government to hold regular meetings with CMs of states across north India.
Gopal Rai, a long time comrade-in-arms of Kejriwal, agreed with his leader.
“He is right to say that because then we can work in a fixed module, but this requires for the state governments to take some policy decisions, for which they need to intervene. Environment ministers can decide the kind of action that needs to be taken,” he said.
The Delhi government’s decision to install a smog tower as part of a pilot project at a cost of Rs 20 crore has invited criticism from experts. To these critics, Rai said: “Opinion is divided over the issue, but China has also used a different technology for these smog towers. We decided to have one after the court recommended it last year on an experimental basis.”
Depending on the success of the pilot project, he said the Kejriwal government will decide if more such towers will be installed.