On December 3, during a Supreme Court hearing on Delhi’s worsening air quality, the Uttar Pradesh government the polluted air was “mostly coming from Pakistan”.
“So, you want to ban industries in Pakistan?” retorted Chief Justice of India NV Ramana.
This exchange, though tongue in cheek, encapsulates the annual blame game between the governments in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and the centre over the air pollution crisis in the national capital.
In November, the conversation was largely around how Delhi’s air pollution stemmed from bursting crackers during Diwali and farm fires in neighbouring states. But Diwali is long gone and the farm fires have dissipated. Yet, last week, the air quality index, or AQI, in several spots in Delhi remained in the “severe” category.
On December 2, while hearing a writ petition on steps taken to control the situation, the Supreme Court had also given a to the centre, Delhi, and neighbouring states to submit suggestions on how to act against industrial and vehicular pollution in the national capital region.
“When hearings on the issue started, there was a certain AQI. If as many efforts as you are claiming have been made, then why is pollution increasing?” the chief justice asked solicitor general Tushar Mehta. “That is the simple question a layman will ask. So many arguments by lawyers and so many government claims. But why is pollution increasing?”
Newslaundry analysed Delhi’s air quality between November 28 and December 4, during which Delhi’s AQI oscillated between “very poor” and “severe”. Did emergency measures, such as the Graded Response Action Plan introduced in 2017, help mitigate the problem?
Interventions, but not adequate
An AQI between zero and 50 is considered “good”; 51-100 “satisfactory”; 101-200 “moderate”; 201-300 “poor”; 301-400 “very poor”; and 401-500 “severe”.
On November 29, for instance, the AQI in Delhi was 389, falling in the “very poor” category, based on data from 30 monitoring stations.
Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director (research and advocacy) at Delhi’s Centre for Science and Environment, told Newslaundry that air pollution in the capital is a multi-layered problem with no easy fixes.
“It is important to mention that Delhi has done quite a lot in this regard and it has shown results as well,” Roychowdhury said. “This is the only city to have shut down all coal power plants, banned dirty fuels so only notified clean fuels can be used here. Legal industrial areas in Delhi are only using natural gas. Most of our public transport, including auto rickshaws and buses, run on CNG. Ten-year-old trucks cannot enter Delhi without paying an environmental cess.”
These interventions helped Delhi “bend the longer-term pollution curve”, she said.
“The annual average of PM2.5” – meaning fine particulate matter – “isn’t increasing,” Roychowdhury added. “However, Delhi still requires a 59 percent reduction in its PM2.5 levels to meet the clean air standards.”
Notably, there are significant gaps in the city’s infrastructure, hampering its ability to mitigate air pollution. Delhi has not been able to adequately scale up its public transport infrastructure. It 10,000 buses but has around 6,000, even while the has made it unaffordable for a large section of the population. The capital also lacks pathways for walking and cycling, increasing the public’s reliance on public transport.
To tackle issues of air pollution, the was notified in 2017 for Delhi-NCR. The plan, which kicks in whenever Delhi-NCR’s particulate matter concentration crosses a certain threshold, works as an emergency measure. It imposes temporary curbs such as pollution control in thermal power plants, mechanised sweeping of roads, stoppage of construction activities, and introducing the odd-even vehicle scheme.
However, as Roychowdhury explained, the emergency measures outlined in the plan are only meant to ensure that no further fuel is added to a fire that’s already raging.
“What is needed is round the year implementation of the notified by the centre in 2018,” she said, “which is a multi-sector, region-wide exercise to bring down air pollution over the long term. It includes traffic management, use of cleaner fuels, and increased electrification of vehicles. That’s where the progress has been slow.”
For instance, she said, Delhi shut its coal power plants but there are still 11 such plants functioning in the NCR within a 300-km radius of Delhi.
“If air pollution is a crisis today for the entire Indo-Gangetic plain, then the strategy needs to be tweaked accordingly,” she said. “One of the affected cities can’t expect blue skies by taking a few emergency measures.”
So, did the Supreme Court’s 24-hour ultimatum lead to results?
The centre it had set up an “enforcement task force” that was empowered to take punitive and preventive action against persons and entities that do not comply with stipulated rules. It also said 17 flying squads – to be increased to 40 “in the next 24 hours” – were constituted to inspect air pollution norms.
Meanwhile, the Delhi government, after being pulled up by the Supreme Court for reopening schools, announced on December 3 that all educational institutions would be shut till further notice.
It wasn’t the first time the apex court came down heavily on the Aam Aadmi Party government. In November, the Supreme Court with a “proper audit of the revenues you are earning and spending on popularity slogans” and accused it of “passing the buck” on air pollution to Delhi’s municipal corporations.
Last week too, the court reprimanded the Delhi government over its ubiquitous “Red Light On, Gaadi Off” campaign to curb vehicular pollution.
“Poor young boys standing in the middle of the road with banners, who is taking care of their health?” the bench was . “Again, we've to say, other than the popularity slogan, what else is it?”
Last week was also when the Kejriwal government took out full-page ads on November 30 and December 4 with its “popularity slogan” in the Delhi editions of Indian Express, Hindustan Times, Hindustan and Amar Ujala.
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