How to rid India of terrifying pollution once and for all

Only sustained all-round action considering every minor detail will ensure compliance for improved air quality.

 |   Long-form |   14-11-2017
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Benjamin Franklin, an inventor, statesman and one of the founding fathers of the United States, is credited with a rhyme: "For want of a nail, the battle was lost."

It was a simple, yet powerful message to showcase how something of vital importance can and does depend on apparently trivial things. This idiom came from a story in which the loss of a nail (it was a headless nail) led to the loss of horse, which led to the loss of its rider which, in turn, led to the loss of the battle and, ultimately, the whole kingdom.

smogg-smogg-690_111417062409.jpgWe did not bother to employ more trained personnel to check the rising pollution. Photo: Reuters

This is exactly what our battle against air pollution looks like. Small things that need to be fixed and can be done very easily have been neglected for long. Actions at several levels that need to have been initiated much earlier were either never taken or have been taken too late. And then there are some remarkable examples of putting the horse before the carriage.

Here, take a look:

We slept through almost the entire year since last year’s episode of heavy-duty pollution (why take any action in July if you must brace up for smog in November?).

We did not bother to monitor all the parametres that cause pollution, and continued to focus on PM2.5 and PM10 (particulate matter 2.5 micron or less; particulate matter 10 micron or less) till the court took the pollution control boards to task.

We did not bother to clean roads with mechanised vacuum suckers/cleaners (oh we have those, but they are awfully short in supply).

We never ever saw sprinkling of water at construction sites (Water? We don’t bother about several safety standards).

We did not bother about the ban on diesel generators till the courts stepped in.

We never offered any incentive to the SUV-driving elite or two-wheeler drivers to abandon their vehicles and take to public transport (If I ask, possibly my government-provided car will be withdrawn too, thinks a policymaker).

(But before that) we didn’t even bother to increase the number of public transport vehicles (yes, yes, we have procured few hundred buses even when we know few thousands are required).

We did not bother to act against polluters as much as we ought to (the influential are connected to politicians and the small fries get away by paying bribes).

(But before that) we did not bother to employ more trained personnel to check the rising pollution.

(Who will do the math? We don’t even have the resources to find out how many more hands are needed.)

We never bothered to close down brick kilns or stone crushers as we want development (real estate lobby is above par, surely).

We never bothered to stop construction activity; for example, for metro or national highways (missing deadlines for such infrastructure projects is not done, you see).

We did not bother to shut down power plants. (Talk of renewable energy and all is humbug, okay? We need coal power.)

We never bothered to pay the farmers their dues (but they must not burn stubble).

And, last but not the least, as Delhiites — including the media — we did not bother to think about places outside Delhi-NCR. (Oh, do they face as much air pollution?)

The question is: What did we do then?

Enough talk, now time for action

What transpired since November 7 in Delhi-NCR — and the whole of Punjab, Haryana, northern Rajasthan as well as western Uttar Pradesh — was almost predictable. Even when satellite images were available to guage the spread of pollution (especially smog) across the Indo-Gangetic plains, and even when the Air Quality Index (AQI) in many north Indian cities — including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency Varanasi — consistently remained “severe” for months together, policy makers sat pretty till the situation went out of hand with almost zero visibility on November 7.

(On Thursday, November 9, 2017 while dealing with air pollution cases pertaining to Delhi and NCR, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) brought in the “right to decent and clean environment as a fundamental right within the ambit and scope of Article 21 of the Constitution of India” and minced no words when it criticised the government, stating the “right to life has been infringed with impunity by the persons, Authorities and States upon whom lay Constitutional and statutory obligations to provide decent and clean environment to the public at large particularly in relation to breathing of clean air and drinking of clean water.”)

GRAP on paper but little action on ground

The November 9 NGT order did acknowledge that there is “hazardous ambient air quality not only in NCT of Delhi but even in NCR of Delhi and other parts of the country” from the data provided by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) monitoring stations.

At the same time, the NGT also pointed out how the samples collected by the CPCB, Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) and other state boards have not even been tested on all parametres (PM1, PM2.5, PM10, ozone, CO, NOx (NO, NO2), SO2, BC, methane (CH4), non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHC), VOCs, benzene, mercury).

There is a Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP), which was put in place theoretically in December 2016, again, after a court order. It lists out actions to be taken by various government agencies in case of a relevant air quality bracket.

“But Delhi’s air pollution cannot be tackled, that is, the GRAP cannot be fully implemented if the neighbouring states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh have no action plan of their own to curb pollution,” says Aishwarya Sudhir, an independent air quality researcher.

No more just an urban issue

The expanse of smog this November covered areas from Pakistan to Punjab, Haryana and past Delhi, till Uttar Pradesh, basically the entire Indo-Gangetic plain.

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) data showed that on November 7, at 4pm, the Air Quality Index (AQI) in Delhi was 448, for Ghaziabad it was 475, for NOIDA it was 468, for Faridabad it stood at 409 and at Bhiwadi it was 439 — all above 400, which is considered “severe”.

smog-pti-690_111417062523.gifIn 2012, globally, three million deaths could be attributed to ambient air pollution. Photo: PTI

Thanks to the media, problems in Delhi-NCR get the most hype and the smog crisis from other areas received far less reportage and attention even as most in the capital continued to blame farmers for stubble burning.

Dr G V Ramanjaneyulu, executive director for Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA-India), says understanding the urban-rural link in pollution is crucial.

The urban Indian driving SUVs and two-wheelers cannot blame the rural Indian farmer for trying to secure her fields with stubble burning when left with no other choice.

“As a society, it is also our responsibility to bear the cost of crop/stubble cutting. The farmers earned Rs 1,550 as minimum support price (MSP) for paddy this season, which does not even cover the cost of production, which has been pegged at Rs 2,100 by the government. So, punitive action is not going to work unless some support system is in place for farmers. Without paying farmers the due cost, you cannot expect them to bear the additional labour charges for stubble removal,” Ramanjaneyulu says.

Media will forget, will policy makers too?

As other national issues such as the Gujarat polls, and geo-strategic issues such as ASEAN, occupy more space in India’s public discourse — and as the smog clears over the next few days — the media narrative will shift from discussing smog and pollution-related problems.

However, irrespective of media coverage, it is important that the authorities undertake persistent action for eliminating the root cause of pollution — lest this pollution spirals into a monumental disaster for India, much like the lost kingdom in Franklin’s rhyme.

A 2016 World Health Organisation (WHO) report titled ”Ambient Air Pollution: A Global Assessment of Exposure and Burden of Disease” showed how monitoring air quality is just the first as well as the key step to be taken by public authorities, both at the national and city levels, to tackle the multi-sectoral challenge of addressing air pollution.

“The report (database) compiles information on PM2.5 and PM10 from measurements for about 3,000 cities and towns worldwide. The modelled estimates indicate that in 2014 only about one in 10 people breathe clean air, as defined by the WHO Air quality guidelines,” it said.

The report also mentioned that, in 2012, globally, three million deaths could be attributed to ambient air pollution.

“About 87 per cent of these deaths occur in low and middle-income countries (LMICs), which represent 82 per cent of the world population.”

The statistics are a clear indication that if India needs to improve her income levels, if she needs to work on improving the GDP, she has no alternative but to improve air quality for her citizens.

Also read - Delhi NCR wakes up to an apocalyptic day with pollution hitting alarming levels

Writer

Nivedita Khandekar Nivedita Khandekar @nivedita_him

The author is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She writes on environmental, developmental and social issues.

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