Can the ban on construction really improve Delhi’s air quality?

The Delhi government has issued fresh guidelines to check pollution caused by dust from these sites. Is the ban on construction still needed?

As Delhi’s air quality continues to oscillate between poor and severe this winter, the Delhi government imposed a ban on construction from November 15th. The Supreme Court too stepped in to reinforce the ban. In a move to alleviate the problems faced by about six lakh suddenly unemployed construction workers registered with the Delhi Government, the government launched the ‘Shramik Mitra‘ scheme for them.

Under the scheme, 800 ‘Shramik Mitras’ will reach out to construction workers, and spread awareness on various government schemes available to them. These Shramik Mitras will work as District, Ward and Vidhan Sabha level coordinators and go door-to-door as part of the awareness-building drive. They will also help workers in applying and availing the benefits of government schemes.

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal also announced financial aid for construction workers who have been affected by the ban on construction and demolition activities due to pollution, like increasing the dearness allowance for unskilled and semi-skilled workers. In a statement, Delhi Government said the monthly salary of unskilled workers has been increased from Rs 15,908 to Rs 16,064, that of semiskilled workers from Rs 17,537 to Rs 17,693 and of skilled workers from Rs 19,291 to Rs 19,473.

Financial aid

Meanwhile, a Delhi government communication said that financial assistance worth Rs 5000 each was deposited on November 27th in the account of 2.95 lakh construction workers. Those left out are likely to receive the amount over the next few days.

The estimated number of construction workers in Delhi is around 10 lakh. Nearly seven lakh workers are either already registered or in the process of getting themselves registered.

Read more: Delhi: Super commission fiddles while air pollution turns deadly

Currently, more than 80% of construction labour are “permanent residents of Delhi”, though most of them originally belonged to U.P, Haryana, MP, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand. Though the construction sector is of vital importance to the Indian economy contributing 7.7% to the country’s GDP, with a total turnover of Rs 10,640.68 billion in 2015-16, it was the segment most affected by the lockdowns and now due to the capital’s severe pollution crisis.

The brick kiln menace and other threats

In a survey by Purpose, the Mahila Housing Trust Delhi and CMSR, respondents said that the main reasons for air pollution were vehicular traffic (65%), industrial activities (47%), poor waste management and waste burning (35%). Only 21% hold construction responsible for poor air quality.

According to Anumita Roychowdhury, Executive Director, Research and Advocacy, CSE, Delhi has set up more processing capacity of construction and demolition waste than what it generates. A Delhi Pollution Control Report says, the total waste generation is 3,711.64 tonnes per day against the processing capacity of 4,150 tonnes per day.

But, at the ground level, due to inefficient collection, the entire waste does not reach the processing plants. This also requires a mandate for all construction agencies to utilize the recycled aggregate and material (like the way the new Supreme Court building was done), Anumita said.

In a move to check pollution due to construction activities which resumed after a break of almost two years, the Delhi government has recommended fresh guidelines to check pollution caused by dust by installing three real-time monitors and CCTV cameras at every construction site larger than 20,000 square metres.

On the outskirts of NCR are roughly 360 brick kilns, mostly in the Jhajjar, Faridabad and Ghaziabad regions, whose peak business months are December to June. Emissions from these kilns rise during the winter months, as in summer and spring, the winds are relatively faster, and gases do not stay suspended in one place. Fine dust from construction activities is a significant contributor to the poisonous mixture referred to as ‘smog,” said a paper on “Air Pollution in Delhi – Filling the policy gaps,” by Arpan Chatterji of Observer Research Foundation (ORF).

Read more: Construction quality norms: How to ensure buildings don’t collapse

Government and local municipal corporations have not adequately ensured compliance of the construction industry with environmental regulations such as covering up debris and waste management. Compounding the problem is the fact that infrastructure projects do not bother to publish timelines, rendering their construction teams without any accountability.

During evaluations of construction workplaces, investigators with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) identified issues that could affect indoor environmental quality (IEQ) too. It was found that during construction, renovation, demolition, or repair projects, workers and residents can be exposed to dust, gases, organic vapors, microbiological contaminants and mold.

Government measures

Meanwhile, the Delhi Government recommendations said the data reflected from ‘real-time particulate monitor’ will be directly sent to the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC), which will then alert the project developers if pollutant concentration crosses the defined level.

The DPCC has maintained that it will issue an order to halt work at the site if no remedial action is taken within 24 hours of the first warning. The guidelines also state that the pollution control body will revoke the environmental clearance granted to the project if any tampering of devices or information is identified.

“It is clear that lot of attention is being paid by Delhi Government to dust and particulate from demolition and construction,” said Anumita Roychowdhury. “Recycling of waste is also happening, better than in other cities”.

“However, one distortion is that the GST levied on recycled material is higher than the virgin material and this issue needs to be addressed.”

What the rules say

According to Delhi government regulations, if the hourly average value of PM2.5 and PM10 at a construction site is greater than the level at the nearest Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations (CAAQMS), a computerized warning will be sent out to the project proponent to recognize the origin and take corrective measures within a period of three hours.

Sarath K. Guttikunda and Rahul Goel inferred from their study “Health impacts of particulate pollution in a megacity —Delhi,” that around 10,750 tonne of construction waste is generated in Delhi every year. Even after the construction phase, these buildings have the potential to be major contributors of GHG (Green House Gas) emissions. Greater use of green building technologies and the application of green infrastructure and materials during construction could tackle this issue to a large extent, thereby preserving biodiversity and maintaining cleaner air quality.

The government recently launched an online portal to self-audit and manage Construction & Demolition (C&D) waste, said Delhi environment minister Gopal Rai. The state government issued a public notice making it mandatory for private and government contractors to comply with the 14 norms laid out for construction sites to control dust emissions.

The norms include covering construction materials, installing anti-smog guns and dust/wind breaking walls.

“Under the campaign, 31 teams have been formed to carry out inspections for any violation of norms,” said Rai. “Of these, 17 constitute the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) while 14 are of green marshals from the Green War Room”.

“Our inspection teams are trained to identify violations and report them on Green Delhi app for registering pollution-related complaints”.

As per the National Green Tribunal (NGT) guidelines, a fine between Rs 10,000 to Rs five lakh could be imposed for violation of rules depending on the size of construction sites. “Through the portal, all construction agencies will have to comply with the checklist and conduct self-audits on it. The website will be linked with the DPCC war room and help to curb dust pollution,” added Rai.

Delhi construction ban
A prolonged ban on construction in Delhi could hit builders who have invested in equipment like water sprinklers to minimise pollution from construction work.

Curbing dust pollution

Some real estate developers proactively installed anti-smog guns and cameras to provide a live feed to the local administration for monitoring their under construction projects. Realtors are investing Rs 10 lakh to Rs 30 lakh per project to reduce pollution and avoid fines.

“The dust suppression system uses high-pressure water fogging with turbo air-flow, which further creates very fine water droplets (10-30 microns in size),”said Amarjit Bakshi, CMD, Central Park. “They are expected to reduce pollution in the atmosphere by approximately 80% for a certain period of time.”

Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India (CREDAI) had sent an advisory to install anti-smog guns to all its members at their under construction project sites and maximum members have installed the gun. “As a precautionary measure, we are putting PTZ cameras and smog guns at sites beside regular water sprinkling,” said Santosh Agarwal, CFO, Alpha Corp. “Water sprinkling too will help in reducing dust to a major extent.”

With no construction activity during the majority of last year, first due to pollution ban and then due to lockdown, developers are facing consistent delays in delivering projects.

As a leading builder in the capital and Director of Enkay Entrepreneurs Parvinder Singh Kohli said: “We have time bound programme and if such bans are prolonged, we are affected. The industry employs daily wagers and we can support them for sometime after which it becomes difficult.’’

Officials associated with infrastructure projects said that the monsoon has already led to delays, and the current ban may further hit deadlines.

“We are planning to deploy the existing labour in cleaning and dust control measures so that we don’t face labour shortage once the ban is lifted,” a senior PWD official said.

 “Unlike previous construction bans, the Delhi government should ensure food and sustenance for labourers and their families,” said East Delhi Municipal Corporation Mayor Shyam Sunder Aggarwal. “Most of these households are on hand to mouth basis and some relief should be provided”.

What if the ban continues?

“The agencies should not leave the open construction sites unattended in places such as Ashram underpass or Central Vista project,” said Dr S Velmurugan, chief scientist, Central Road Research Institute (CRRI).

“A section of labourers should be used to sprinkle water at the sites and in implementing anti-dust measures”.

If the government decides to further extend the ban, it may consider exempting a few projects that will prove critical in decongesting major stretches, albeit with stringent dust control measures, Dr Velmurugan added.

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