Delhi’s toxic air: From emergency measures to sustained action

What is required, but not happening, is round the year action to improve municipal services, infrastructure and enforcement with adequate accountability.

It is that time of the year in when winter smog sets in and air pollution spikes in Delhi. Delayed withdrawal of rains and consequent deferment of stubble burning this year had made October one of the cleanest in the last few years. But the onset of winter conditions – cool and calm wind, temperature inversion, rapidly increasing farm fires and overall trapping of regional pollution – has created conditions that may trigger the season’s first smog episode soon.  

The SAFAR (System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research) programme of Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology had already predicted that air pollution would build up to ‘very poor quality’ category as per the national air quality index during and after Diwali. It has also predicted that the daily contribution of pollution from the farm fires in the surrounding states of Punjab and Haryana may increase to 38% of PM2.5 concentration. Especially with increasing traffic intensity during the festive season. 

Even though the annual average of particulate matter less than 2.5 micron size (PM2.5), the tiny particles that go deep inside the lungs, has stabilised and declined in Delhi over the years, the levels are still too high and aid in rapid build up of pollution during winter when the weather turns adverse. Unless round-the-year action intensifies to reduce overall pollution, winter smog will remain a deadly reality in the capital with serious health consequences.

Read more: Delhi: Lapse of air quality commission confirms the devious motives behind it

Currently, Delhi is addressing the challenge with two sets of action plans. The Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) that mandates temporary emergency response action at times of smog. Second is the multi-sector comprehensive action plan that includes short and longer term action for year round implementation.

While both the plans were directed by the Supreme Court in 2017-18, the Delhi government has additionally announced its own 10-point own winter action plan. This includes reducing dust pollution, preventing garbage burning, decomposing paddy straw instead of burning, total ban on firecrackers, monitoring of pollution hotspots, and controlling vehicular pollution. It plans to have a green war room and Green Delhi app to address public grievances. The plan also includes ineffectual measures like the smog towers to purify outdoor air.

Barriers to action

At the same time, the Clean Air Commission has issued a series of directives targeting local hot spot action and power plant pollution in Delhi-NCR. The Commission is now the statutory authority after both houses of the Parliament approved the ‘Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Bill’, 2021. It is responsible for managing and monitoring air quality in the NCR and its neighbouring areas.

This overarching body is expected to consolidate multi-state monitoring into one platform to ensure comprehensive air quality management in the entire region. The commission has overriding powers over other bodies in matters of air pollution and can take measures, issue directions and entertain complaints. It also has penal authority.

This move has reduced the pressure on the judiciary and creates a supra-centralised and supra regional executive framework for air-quality management in the region. How this will play out in harmonising the stringent actions needed across the region with the different state governments remain to be seen. In the past, all the measures implemented were backed by the directives from the Supreme Court.

The winter challenge

At this stage, it is not clear what kind of emergency response action will be enforced by the Delhi government as part of its general winter plan when smog episodes build up during winter. In the past, emergency action included, among others, temporary stoppage of all construction activities, closure of industries and brick kilns, stopping of truck entry and enforcement of odd-even scheme for cars.

The role of emergency action is not to add more when pollution is already trapped due to atmospheric conditions and there is no wind to blow it away. It is not a magic wand that can minimise pollution concentration immediately. 

Effectiveness of emergency action is also compromised in the absence of larger systemic reforms. For instance, enforcement of emergency measures like banning diesel generator sets in NCR becomes nearly impossible in the absence of access to reliable electricity.

Enforcement of three times hike in parking charges to discourage car usage during smog episodes also remains ineffectual as city-wide parking management plans have not been implemented. The scope and effect of odd and even scheme remains limited because of inadequate public transport systems. Waste burning cannot be stopped as the municipal infrastructure is not adequate to segregate and recycle waste.

In fact, the enforcement strategy which is important during winter remains sub-optimal as the institutional processes to respond to local problems and public grievances are weak. The recent release of data by the Central Pollution Control Board on the status of response to public grievances shows that the concerned departments could respond to only 11% of the grievances during the latter half of October.

Read more: Clean air plans ready for 102 cities, but no budget

Equally worrying is the diversion of resources to ineffective cosmetic gizmos like smog towers. This has drawn considerable public criticism for being ineffectual in extremely dynamic wind and atmospheric conditions. Nowhere else in the world are smog towers implemented as a regulatory measure to reduce pollution.

It is ironical that the Rs 20 crore cost of each of these towers are significantly more than the total fund allotted to individual non-compliant cities under the National Clean Air Programme.

This inevitably raises the question on what will it take to find a more sustainable solution to air pollution problem in this region.

Delhi air pollution from firecrackers during Diwali season
File pic of Delhiites bursting firecrackers. Despite the total ban this year, enough firecrackers were burst that worsened air pollution in the capital. Pic: Wikimedia Commons

Band aid solutions will not work

The only way pollution can be tamed and minimised is through a system approach in each sector to ensure structural and infrastructure changes to sustain air quality gains.

There are lessons in the 20 years of the Supreme Court led Clean Air action in Delhi. The action so far has strategically targeted polluting diesel, coal and dirty fuels and hotspot pollution.

This has catalyzed shifting of big industries, replacing diesel powered public transport and local commercial transport with compressed natural gas (CNG), improving emissions standards for vehicles, restricting entry of heavy-duty trucks, phasing out of old vehicles, adoption of clean fuels policy, banning of coal, petcoke and furnace oil, and closure of all coal power plants in Delhi.

These are not small measures. No other city in NCR or outside have implemented all these measures together. Though this has helped Delhi to stabilize and reduce overall particulate pollution over time, close to 60% further reduction in annual average level of PM2.5 is needed to meet clean air standards.

This shows how aggressive and transforming the next level of action needs to be.

Delhi still has to do a lot more. It requires massive scaling up of public transport services, walking and cycling infrastructure and parking policy so that at least 80-90% of all motorised trips are using public transport.

Delhi has to improve municipal services for waste management to have a zero landfill policy and to fully recycle waste. And while tightening action in legal industrial areas it has to ensure all industrial units in municipal and unauthorised areas eliminate dirty fuels.

The capital also requires a massive greening effort and street design to douse the dust. This requires round the year action to build infrastructure, institutional capacity and enforcement mechanism with accountability.

This will require aligned and stringent action across all states in the NCR region and also between state and central government. For example, efforts of the state governments to expand use of clean fuels like natural gas in industry and transport can be stymied if the central GST on natural gas remains higher than coal, creating an incentive to use dirty fuels.

Scale up public transport

Increasingly, solutions are getting more complex in design and scope.

Implementation agencies are finding it harder to institutionalize new changes. For instance, in the transport sector, it is easier to plan bus numbers than improve bus services through system design and multi-modal integration. Or implement transit oriented urban projects, and parking area management plans to reduce vehicle numbers.

As local institutional mechanisms are not adequately geared up to bridge the gap between policy and implementation, on-ground change is slow. While local action in Delhi and NCR needs to be strengthened, the action has to be harmonized across the Indo- Gangetic Plain.

Also, while improving systems and implementation capacity, equally stronger focus has to be on building public and political support for difficult and inconvenient measures that are inevitable for transformative changes.

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