Wednesday, 28 September, 2022
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SC to smog tower to AAP-Centre data slugfest – Delhi’s air pollution is a no-brainer

Govt proposals to reduce air pollution, such as Graded Action Plan or lockdown, come either just before the smog season or when cities are already choking.

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This week’s newsmaker is no surprise. It’s been a topic of discussion on every primetime show, been fought about in the Supreme Court of India, and is pretty much something you can’t – and therefore haven’t been able to – get away from if you live in north India: air pollution.

Predictably, the Air Quality Index (AQI) levels have gone through the roof – hitting record levels after Diwali – and politicians from the CongressBharaitya Janata Party, and Aam Aadmi Party have been pointing fingers at each other the last fortnight. Every year, history repeats itself, with no resolution in sight.

Even though it feels like Delhi is the worst affected, the truth is that air pollution affects the whole Indo-Gangetic plain, with millions of people breathing in air that is at least 30 times worse than what the World Health Organization (WHO) stipulates is safe.

A quick Google search will yield several results of government proposals to reduce air pollution, like implementing the Graded Action Plan and a ‘pollution-induced’ lockdown. But all these suggestions are made either just before the smog season sets in, or when cities are already choking.

According to the medical journal Lancet, air pollution caused over 16.7 lakh deaths in 2019. If 2019 pollution levels persist, nearly half of those living in the Indo-Gangetic plain – including Delhi – will lose 8.5 years of their lives.

All this is why air pollution is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.

Also read: Smog of democracy — Why air pollution is not a political issue

Interventions by Supreme Court

Since the turn of the century, the Supreme Court has taken an interest in matters concerning air pollution. Today’s alarming AQI levels – between 270 and 340 in Delhi – show that it has been somewhat in vain.

Until recently, the Supreme Court liaisoned with the erstwhile Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA), which prepared reports monitoring pollution levels in the National Capital Region (including parts of Haryana, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh). Even though the EPCA was bestowed with the power to file criminal complaints against non-compliant polluters, RTI reports show it never did so in its 20 years of existence.

The EPCA’s most notable contribution to curbing air pollution was its role in ensuring all DTDC busses switched to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) in 2002. But that was it. The lack of interest in solving the air pollution crisis brewed steadily over those two decades.

Government officials, off the record, have said the EPCA’s demise was inevitable, given only two people – chairperson Bhure Lal and the Centre for Science and Environment’s Sunita Narain – “called the shots.” All other members of what should have been a 20-people commission, rarely showed up for meetings.

The EPCA was replaced last year with the Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM), a four-member committee that initially generated a lot of excitement, before quickly fizzling out. The Commission was dissolved, to the surprise of its members, five months after its launch due to an ordinance lapse.

The Commission was promptly resurrected, and has since made 43 directives and issued seven advisories this smog season. Results won’t be immediate, but whether the CAQM will remember the pollution problem throughout the year – and not only when the smog season approaches – is something yet to be seen.

Also read: Delhi-NCR families seeking treatment for pollution-related illness doubled in a week: Survey

Gimmicks and misleading data

Among the latest gimmicks in combatting Delhi’s air pollution are smog towers. And here, the Supreme Court is culpable too.

In 2019, the apex court ordered the central government to build smog towers in Delhi, and then demanded last year in September that this be done within 10 months. The Arvind Kejriwal-led Delhi government decided to compete, and took on the task of building one of the smog towers, in Connaught Place.

Now, Delhi has two functional smog towers, each worth Rs 20 crore, but there’s little hope they will work. Besides the evidence outside our windows, experts have been warning against the installation of these expensive, ineffective machines for a while.

If this wasn’t bad enough, the Narendra Modi government submitted what experts describe as “misleading” data to the Supreme Court on the causes of air pollution.

In an affidavit, the Centre said farm fires contributed just 4 per cent to Delhi’s air pollution levels. This may be true as a year-long average, but during peak stubble burning season, from mid-October to mid-November, open fires (including farm fires) account for around 30 per cent of pollution. According to a 2019 study by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), a public policy think tank, the other big contributor to pollution is heating and cooking.

Misleading data could have massive ramifications on how the sources of air pollution are addressed, but the slugfest between the Centre and the AAP over the data continues.

Also read: India’s MSME sector largest after China’s. But no one is talking about its role in emissions

Moving forward

So, what respite do those living in the north have? Some lies in the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) – a scheme aimed at reducing PM 2.5 levels by 20–30% by 2024.

Total 122 cities have submitted action plans to reduce PM2.5 levels through the plan’s duration, which will be monitored by the state pollution boards. But the NCAP targets are not legally binding.

“Given that the availability of funds for air pollution mitigation activities in cities is contingent upon the performance of cities with regards to pollution control initiatives, state pollution control boards and local authorities need to develop implementable strategies with detailed cost estimates,” Tanushree Ganguly, programme lead at the CEEW, said in a statement.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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