This smog shows why Delhi shouldn’t wait for 2020 to switch to BS VI fuel

There are two major causes — stubble burning and vehicular pollution.

 |  4-minute read |   01-12-2017
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No amount of water could actually water down Delhi's thick blanket of smog. The AQI (Air Quality Index) is still hovering near 500. By this time, we all know that this has been a recurrent phenomenon, particularly for the last two years. And with unerring accuracy, it haunts us every year around the same time. It also elicits more or less the same knee-jerk and over-the-top response from all stakeholders. 

Lots of sound and fury. But nothing much gets done.

Ironically, Delhi was the first city to switch to CNG for its public transport nearly 17 years ago, prompted by a Supreme Court order. It also had a two-year roadmap to implement it. This move immediately improved the smog situation at various traffic zones such as AIIMS, ITO, Nizamuddin and others. A Washington-based think tank said that Delhi made the most "significant impact" on air quality between 1990 and 2005. One, therefore, assumed that it was done and dusted for good.

Alas! A decade later, the problem has reared its ugly head.

This time, it seems to be because of “two and a half causes”: stubble burning, vehicular pollution and burning of solid waste.

A recent study by research firm Indicus Analytics, led by  Dr Laveesh Bhandari, a reputed applied economist, brought out a strikingly clear report on the causes of smog and its possible solutions.

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Contrary to the various reasons being discussed, there are two major causes: stubble burning and vehicular pollution.

Both contribute half (51 per cent) of the PM 2.5 air pollution. Solid waste burning contributes about another eight per cent. All three taken together contribute 60 per cent to the pollution. Biomass burning includes all forms of biomass material – fields, households and garden material. Vehicular pollution covers the emission from the two- and four-wheelers, trucks and buses. Believe it or not, the two-wheelers contribute over half of the pollution, even though they constitute two-third of the entire traffic. Solid waste covers all forms of waste from households and businesses.

So, what’s the way forward which can ensure that in January 2018, we don’t have to go through the same hoopla?

One, we need to change our traffic management. Measures such as Odd-Even, free public transport, staggering office hours (employees do not arrive and leave at the same hours), office pooling, and high parking rates (let’s name it congestion fee) will suffice. Other innovations are also welcome. Don’t go for any heavy-handed measure as they will find a leeway, like emission standard tinkering, to backfire us. But most importantly, all of us must shift to BS VI low-sulfur compliant cars and fuel standards, which has 80 per cent less sulfur content. Not in 2020 but 2018 itself.

Two, subsidise till-less technology to remove stubble so that farmers don’t have to burn them. Encourage agritech start-ups in and around agricultural universities in research and development activities with SIDBI (Small Industries Development Bank of India) funding. Rice straws can be picked up by National Thermal Power Corporation for their thermal plants. Satellite imagery can also be used to find out heavily polluting areas.

Third, the solutions to curb pollution from solid waste burning are more nuanced. However, they are doable. Mumbai (AQI of 93-97) has tackled its waste burning effectively at Deonar and Kanjur Marg landfills. BMC wards have been able to by and large convince housing complexes to segregate dry waste and compost wet waste locally at the household to reduce waste going to the landfills in the first place. They have done this with heavy fines and non-pecuniary measures, like refusing to pick up waste from buildings which fail to comply.  

Weather is also another reason. The retreating monsoon and the narrow band of sub-tropical westerly jet stream from the west to the east along the southern slopes of the Himalayas brings pollutants from neighbouring areas and countries into Delhi-NCR. This is what many fondly call in their terminology as an "act of god". Nothing can be done about that.

But we must act on the rest — and act urgently.

Also read: Hadiya case is an example of how Indian society loves to cage women

Writer

Probir Roy Probir Roy

The writer is a serial tech entrepreneur, trustee, commentator on public policy and FinTech. He is an independent director on the board of Nazara Technologies.

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