Diwali firecrackers create extreme pollution once a year; crop burning emits extreme levels of pollutants for about a month every year, but construction, industrial power, and transport sources combine to create very high levels of pollution throughout the year in Delhi.
While the judiciary has been partly successful in eliminating the use of polluting firecrackers every Diwali, its impact on banning crop stubble burning has been unsuccessful. At the same time, the impact of efforts to reduce year-round pollution also appears to be marginal. While the Central government has maintained a remarkable silence on the matter, the state governments in Delhi and Punjab are busy pointing fingers at each other.
Clearly, rather than ad hoc solutions by various tiers in the government, a comprehensive and coordinated action plan is needed. This requires constantly monitoring ambient air quality and identifying the sources of pollution. While in-depth academic research has been conducted, the results are varied as each study has used different definitions, parameters, and periods.
A comprehensive action plan requires the government, or the Central Pollution Control Board, to come up with an official report on ambient air quality that identifies specific sources of various pollutants across the year. The report should state each of the sources and its contribution, and it needs to have official sanction by the government. Ambient air is what harms health and lives and knowing the specific sources will help design a specific plan. An official sanction will help the public and private sectors to work together. Such an official and periodically updated source apportionment report can then form the basis of a systematic plan of action.
The plan itself needs to allocate various tasks among different tiers and arms of the governments. The Delhi government, for instance, should be surfacing the 8,000 km of unsurfaced roads under its ambit, ramp up public transport, improve the vehicular pollution check system, and move out brick kilns. The Central government needs to ensure that the 30-odd coal power plants in the vicinity of Delhi comply with emission control. Besides, farmers in Punjab and Haryana should be incentivised to shift from water-guzzling and pollution-causing rice production to other environmentally benign crops. The economics of the farmers need to be changed so that collection and disposal of stubble can be more rewarding than burning. A proper ecosystem for zero-emission vehicles such as e-scooters should also be taken up urgently. The many municipal departments in Delhi need to come together to set up an efficient mechanism of garbage collection and disposal, and offenders in the construction sector and other polluting industries must be penalised. Such an action plan needs to be realistic and time-bound, monitored by both civil society and the government.
Finally, no action plan can work if implementation is weak. While measuring pollutants is important for policy, identifying the polluter through a red-flagging service is the key for implementation. Real-time remote sensing imagery through satellites and other means needs to be added to the menu of monitoring options. The time for doing things in an ad hoc manner and finger-pointing is long over.