Environment ministry official says the government couldn’t properly implement its plans on stubble burning and the SC ban on firecrackers.
New Delhi: Through most of the winter of 2018, Delhi has recorded severe levels of air pollution, as have cities like Kanpur and Kolkata. Alarm bells have been ringing right across the northern and eastern parts of the country, urging the central government to wake up and take charge.
Ritesh Kumar Singh, joint secretary at the ministry of environment and forests, addressed the problem Monday at a panel discussion on air pollution organised by the Centre For Policy Research (CPR). According to Singh, the government realises it “slipped up” in its efforts to curb air pollution, especially in the National Capital Region.
The topic of discussion was ‘Research for policy action on air pollution’, chaired by CPR professor Navroz K. Dubash. The panellists included Singh, CPR fellow Shibani Ghosh, Indian Statistical Institute professor E. Somanathan, Business Standard senior associate editor Nitin Sethi, and Vinuta Gopal, co-founder and director, Asar Social Impact Advisors.
Failure to implement systems
Singh said the central government was taking the matter of pollution seriously and planning to tackle the problem head on.
“This issue is handled by the Prime Minister’s principal secretary on a bi-monthly basis, and every bit of information is monitored very closely,” he added. “There is a very large degree of focus on this issue. And the role of the civil society to build pressure is always needed.”
“There are two important things that we tried our best to implement but were not very successful at this year,” Singh said, referring to the prevention of stubble burning and implementing the ban on firecrackers.
Singh admitted that efforts to stop stubble burning in the northern states could not be implemented on time this year.
“The biggest problem was that the implements reached the farmers pretty late, despite our timely procurement process, transferring the money to the state government, identifying beneficiaries in time etc.,” he said.
According to Singh, the implements actually reached farms in Punjab just a week before harvesting, and two weeks before harvesting in Haryana. “I think we need to make sure that the government gets its entire implementation machinery absolutely spot on in 2019,” he said.
On the problem of firecrackers, Singh said: “Despite a clear Supreme Court order saying firecrackers will not be sold in Delhi-NCR, we were not very good at enforcing that ban. The PM2.5 numbers were horrendous post-Diwali.
“These are the two things for which we have the regulatory systems in place, but we need to make sure that we get them absolutely spot on next year.”
Gopal addressed the issue as well, and pointed out that “when it comes to thermal power plants, we haven’t made much progress either”. She further elaborated on how India needs to decide its priorities, whether it is to curb air pollution through policy engagement or spread awareness in civil society.
However, according to Gopal, “The complexities are even more enhanced by various courts jumping into the problem.”
Gopal added that the issue of air pollution had to be studied not in light of the mortality rate (the number of deaths caused), but the morbidity rate (the incidence of disease).
“It is important that middle-class India is affected by this problem…” she said. “Parents are beginning to think that their children will have to live with an illness, with an inhaler for the rest of their lives.”
The govt’s 2019 plan
Asked by an audience member what the government’s strategy to combat air pollution will be in the new year, Singh said: “If you see what has been achieved in Delhi in the past couple of years, we have actually seen a reduction of 10 per cent in PM2.5 from 2016 to 2017, and again from 2017 to 2018. So roughly, it’s a 20 per cent reduction from year 2016 to 2018.
“In Delhi, if we are able to keep up the momentum and we are able to bring pollution down by 50 per cent over five years, then why not in other places?”
Role of CPCB
Panel member Somanathan talked about the need for India to move towards renewable sources of energy. “India needs to start moving from coal to renewables at a fast rate and we need to integrate policies to promote renewables,” he said, adding that “the social costs of using coal are much larger than the economic cost of renewables like wind and solar”.
He also sought to point out that most members of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) belong to a non-science background. In response, Singh said the ministry is working on bringing more members on board, and that “90 per cent of these people will be from a science background”.
He also said that the CPCB’s annual budget of Rs 100 crore will now be put towards more innovative projects.
“There are three or four projects already underway. There are huge air purifiers, which are being developed and put in hotspots of cities, being funded by the CPCB budget. Then these filters are being mounted on buses, so when the bus moves, the air passes through the filters on the roof of the bus,” he said, adding, “There are other technologies too which are in the process of being certified by CPCB.”
The panel members also stressed the role of citizens in bringing about positive change, with Singh encouraging citizens to send in innovative ideas to the CPCB, which it can work on at a policy level.
ThePrint is the digital partner for CPR Dialogues: Navigating India’s 21st Century Transitions, a dialogue on public policy challenges that has been organised on 17 and 18 December in New Delhi.
This report has been updated with additional details.