Expert points out how systemic failure in checking air pollution is causing great damage to public health; Delhi can take a cue from LA to improve air quality
New Delhi: It’s that time of the year again when the air is thick with smog, masks sell like never before, schools are forced to shut and doctors advise NCR residents to ditch outdoor exercise amid a ‘health emergency’.
It is also that time of the year when chief ministers of Delhi, Punjab and Haryana trade charges over inadequate measures to address the menace of air pollution, the National Green Tribunal and other courts slam governments, take stock of actions taken and find them falling short.
The Union environment ministry springs into action to hold yet another meeting and set up one more committee — just like it did Thursday, bringing in a seven-member committee “to continuously monitor the short-term and long-term solutions to air pollution”.
The rest can be a ‘cut-copy-paste’ from last year when the environment ministry met those from the Central Pollution Control Board and Environment Pollution Control Authority “to assess the current situation” and “request respective state governments to fully implement the graded response action plan”.
The doables not done
An environmental expert closely associated with the Centre’s clean air plans for the NCR says red tape and lethargy have resulted in most of the measures not being implemented.
“The problem is that despite knowing that the air will worsen at a particular time due to a combination of factors, little or no action is taken over the year to address it. If the government is going to wake up only when air pollution hit ‘severe’ levels, what can be expected,” he said on condition of anonymity.
“It is a systemic failure and the clear inability to deliver on pre-decided action plans. Maybe government bodies need to be penalised for this,” he added
The expert singled out one of the 42 action plans to clean Delhi air — checking road dust — where very little progress has been made.
“With road dust a clear contributor to PM 10 and PM 2.5, why is it taking so long for the government to institutionalise a system that brings in mechanised sweeping even before smog season hits us? The IIT-Kanpur study on air pollution clearly recommends it and points out that mechanised sweeping would cut down road dust by as much as 71 per cent,” he said.
The researcher also wondered why it is so difficult to bring in sprinklers in time to check dust pollution.
“Why should the government not be held accountable for inflicting this health emergency on the city and its inhabitants,” he asked.
The annual lament over stubble burning in neighbouring states is also an exercise in vain if the Centre and the states cannot get their act together and bring in advanced machinery and alternative crops to truly address the issue.
Having recapitulated this annual drill that leads nowhere, it is only prudent to point out that an improvement in Delhi’s air is still achievable. And there is precedence.
Those who did it
Continents apart, Los Angeles has been through the same torture Delhi is going through. Pictures from the era show smoke rising up the skyline, roads bursting at the seams with cars and people working in offices wearing masks. That is what it took to wake everyone up.
Laki Tisopulos, assistant deputy executive officer of the LA-based South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), points out air pollution levels in South California was historically the worst in the US then.
“That is how the Air Quality Management Programme (AQMP) began and it is key now to bringing down pollution levels in the area. But even that would not have gone ahead, had there not been such huge public support for it,” Tisopulos told ThePrint in his office during a recent visit to Los Angeles by this reporter.
Los Angeles introduced very stringent norms for fuel quality and vehicle emissions, management of dust on roads and from power plants. A ride-share programme was launched in the late 1980s and companies with more than 100 employees were asked to incentivise car pool systems, among other measures.
“People realised that all that was needed to be done to bring down air pollution, must be done. It was non-negotiable. That is why today you have a California leading the debate on climate change,” said Tisopulos, who was part of an expert group that visited India last year.
“India also needs to do the same and a people’s movement will be key to it.”