Smog tales continued

I had explained two weeks ago how, in spite of all the drastic measures taken, including a ban on construction and coal usage in industry, truck entry into the city and more, air pollution in my city, Delhi, was still at emergency levels. The solution, therefore, I said, is to take steps that are transformational in terms of the fuel used for combustion — natural gas or electricity from cleaner sources and to change in the way we move — mobility without cars. Small and timid steps will not work.

As I write this, the air quality in Delhi has slightly improved. My city is now in the poor to very poor category of air quality, depending on wind velocity. This is not good air to breathe, it is still polluted and still toxic, but it is better. For the moment, it seems the worst of the onset of winter — Diwali and the crop-burning period — could be behind us. By mid-November, crop residue burning in Punjab and Haryana stopped.

But does this mean that the air quality will not decline in the coming months. It is now clear that the region’s own sources of pollution are greatly responsible for the poor air quality. The role of crop burning is to exacerbate this situation, not to create it. According to the Ministry of Earth Sciences’ System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), the contribution of crop burning to the region’s pollution stress peaked on November 5, when it went up to 33 per cent. After that, because of the direction of the wind, the contribution has ranged between 5 and 14 per cent. There is no doubt that these emissions from crop residue burning, coming at a time when there was an accumulated load and very adverse weather, tipped us over the edge into severe pollution.

But it is also clear that even if we eliminate crop burning, in the coming months weather conditions will only get more adverse. The cold will increase, which will add to inversion and not allow dispersion; moisture will increase, which will trap the pollutants. And in case we have prolonged periods of poor wind and a low ventilation index (which measures dispersion), then we could be back again in the severe and severe plus categories.

As I explained earlier, the region has adopted a smog alert system, the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP), which allows for harsh action when pollution peaks. It is an emergency plan, not a substitute for an action plan that works to reduce pollution. This winter, the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA), of which I am a member, directed stopping all construction activities; all industrial activities (other than based on natural gas); all brick kilns, stone-crushers; and hotmix plants. In the days after Diwali, it also asked for truck entry into Delhi to be stopped — all to bring down the worst pollution.

The data shows that these measures helped to reduce the pollution levels in those critical days. However, it was also clear that the city could not have continued to impose these restrictions beyond 12-13 days, even as pollution levels did not go down below the severe category. The fact is that these are economic activities and stopping them creates huge livelihood challenges for the very poor, daily labourers in the city. The poor in our cities suffer the most due to air pollution because their work requires them to do strenuous activity in polluted air. By bringing in these measures, which were essential to combat the pollution emergency, we had hit them twice as they also lost their sources of livelihood. Trucks could not be held at the border of the city indefinitely as it would create its own source of unrest and inconvenience to the neighbouring regions of the city. What is clear is that emergency measures cannot be a proxy for our inaction on long-term emission reduction.

So, the question was what more could be done. This is when the EPCA’s chairman suggested that there should also be a restriction on the plying of private vehicles in the city. He said this because the latest emission inventory had shown that vehicles contributed 40 per cent of the pollution in the city; also, private diesel vehicles add substantially to both NOx and PM emissions and are deadly toxic.

He also said this because the EPCA’s proposal for a sticker to identify vehicles based on age and fuel type had not yet implemented. So, the only option was to either ban all private vehicles (without the identification of petrol or diesel) other than CNG and/or restriction on plying by number plate (odd-even). 

Suddenly the outrage returned. It was no longer about pollution — deadly and hazardous for our health. It was at the very idea of “touching” the private car. There is no doubt restricting cars without adequate public transport would be a nightmare. But we also know that in spite of all plans and pressure, governments do nothing to upgrade our system of commute. But when there is a public health emergency, why should only the poor be asked to sacrifice — take the brunt of the control measures? 

In my very polluted city, where I continue to work and fight, there is silence on this question. It is an inconvenient truth. 

The writer is at the Centre for Science and Environment.
Twitter: @sunitanar

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel