Air pollution level in the city nosedived last week and stayed in the ‘very poor’ category for two days partly due to dust storms and also because of non-implementation of long-term plans to fight pollution, experts and government officials told The Hindu.
The top 14 most-polluted cities in the world are located in India, according to the World Health Organization; Delhi ranks six.
Air pollution has been linked to lung cancer, stroke and heart disease. In 2017, 1.24 million people died in India due to air pollution, according to a study funded by the Indian government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Ashwani Mehta, senior consultant at Ganga Ram Hospital in Delhi, said cardiovascular diseases and respiratory diseases kill the most number of people in the Capital and air pollution plays a “major role” in both.
Authorities responsible for controlling air pollution have been pulled up multiple times by the Supreme Court in the past. But there is no respite from the pollution.
Laxity in execution
“Plans have been made. What we need is implementation with strong political and public support,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director, Research and Advocacy at Centre for Science and Environment.
“Solutions are known to everyone. It is a question of implementing it on a scale that is needed and with strong level of stringency.”
When asked about it, Sanjeev Khirwar, Secretary, Department of Environment of the Delhi government, said, “We have improved over the years and there will be strict implementation of the existing plans. We will take action against agencies which are not sticking to the timelines of the plan.”
Mr. Khirwar said multiplicity of agencies involved — Central government, State governments, municipal bodies — also affects the implementation of plans.
CAP and GRAP
The plans Mr. Khirwar and Ms. Roychowdhury were referring to are mainly two documents: Comprehensive Action Plan and Graded Response Action Plan.
Following Supreme Court directions, in 2018, the Central Pollution Control Board came out with CAP for Delhi and the National Capital Region. CAP is a long-term plan which lays down systemic changes to be implemented to fight air pollution.
CAP differs from other plans, as it fixes responsibilities of works to be done on different agencies and also issues deadlines. It divides the works to be done, along with deadlines into 12 major areas like air quality monitoring, action to reduce vehicular emissions, control measures for road dust, among others.
For instance, under the heading “improvement in bus numbers and services”, the CAP states, “SC orders directing Delhi government to abide by Supreme Court direction to augment 10,000 buses by 2000 and the Union to provide land for bus depots.”
“Delhi government must ensure total compliance with order of 1998 and 2016 by December 2018. This requires a total fleet of at least 10,000 buses,” the deadline part of the plan reads.
However, the Delhi government’s process to procure around 3,000 buses is caught in red tape and the deadline has not been met.
Vehicular pollutants are a major cause of pollution and improving public transport would encourage people to use it and lead to less vehicles on road and lesser pollution.
GRAP is a set of emergency measures to be implemented to control air pollution, according to day-to-day air quality index.
“We know exactly what we need to do. We need to stick to it and do it,” said Sagnik Dey, associate professor at Centre for Atmospheric Studies, IIT-Delhi.
Where are we lacking?
Experts said that improving public transport, dust control and waste management are the main areas in which Delhi has been lacking.
D. Saha, former head of CPCB’s air quality lab, pointed out that dust is a major cause of pollution and has to be controlled. “The tragedy is that the measures [to control dust] have not been implemented,” he said.
Though dust is a major cause of pollution, little has been done across Delhi to prevent dust from rising in the air, in terms of landscaping of roads or by planting shrubs, trees and grass along the sides of roads.
Mr. Khirwar said that the Public Works Department is doing landscaping of about 45 km of city roads. “The designs have been made and it is in the tendering stage. It will be done once the model code of conduct is lifted,” he said.
Another area that needs attention is cooperation with neighbouring States, pointed out Mr. Dey. “We need to engage in dialogue with neighbouring States as 50% of pollutants in Delhi are from outside. How can we clean the city if they do not cooperate?” he asked.
To this, Mr. Khirwar said that there are no talks between neighbouring States at this point, but discussions will be initiated.
Suggesting ways to improve air quality, Mr. Saha said, “Delhi is better in implementation of measures compared to other States in the NCR. A lot of pollutants are from outside Delhi. So, for Delhi to be clean, similar measures should be taken in other cities as well”.
“Our major focus is on controlling dust, vehicular pollution. Construction sites have wind breakers and sprinklers to control dust. The PM2.5 and PM10 annual average has come down. We are seeing less polluted days, but there are peaks too,” Mr. Khirwar said.
“Children are affected more by air pollution than adults and a lot of people develop allergies due to it. Action on the ground by the government is lacking and we also need to raise awareness among people,” Dr. Mehta said.
Delhi’s air pollution makes headlines during winters when the wind speed is low and the pollutants get trapped and cannot be blown away by winds. Adding to it is the stubble burning in the neighbouring States.
Mr. Saha pointed out that a lot of factors affecting air pollution depend on Delhi’s geographical location and meteorological conditions and nothing can be done about it.
“There are three waves of pollution that happen in Delhi. One during the summer, that is mainly due to dust from other areas. Another during October 15-November 15, when the stubble burning happens and wind speed is less, and the third during December due to temperature inversion,” Mr. Khirwar said.
“These are mainly due to meteorological conditions, which can be mitigated, but cannot be stopped.”
Siddharth Singh, author of ‘The Great Smog of India’, said, “The bay area of Los Angeles had a similar problem like north India, where the mountains blocked the wind and due to atmospheric inversion, pollutants got trapped. In 1600s, even before the industrial revolution, it was called ‘Bay of Smoke’ due to pollution. But now, there is no trace of smog in Los Angeles as they had worked on it over the years. Even in China, the number of smog days has come down. India can also do a lot better if they work on the sources of pollutants.”