There has been a seven-fold increase in air pollution in the national capital since October, according to the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a public interest research and advocacy organisation. Real-time readings of particulate matter at all of CSE’s monitoring stations are above the “severe” mark. Moreover, Delhi’s outdoor “ambient quality”, which refers to the outdoor air quality measured over 24 hours, is also very poor. Suffice to say, the poor quality of air has raised the incidence of respiratory diseases and other pollution-related health hazards, especially since the dawn of winter, which has seen a spike in heavy smog. On Wednesday, the National Green Tribunal had directed the Delhi government to roll out notifications on areas of the city that are most polluted.
The order directed the Aam Aadmi Party government to begin such announcements within a week. Problems surrounding Delhi’s deteriorating air quality require urgent action. Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation had ranked Delhi above Beijing as the world’s most polluted city. Unlike Delhi, authorities in Beijing have already begun to regulate the flow of vehicles, shut down factories and restrict outdoor activities to the public. On Friday, however, the AAP government proposed an “odd/even” number formula for cars to be rolled out from January 1, 2016. According to the proposal, cars with odd number plate and even number plate will ply on roads on alternate days. If the policy is indeed implemented, Delhi will become the first city in Asia after Beijing to go ahead with the scheme. Although such a proposal seems a little odd at first, the government at least seems to have understood that putting a premium on using roads is the only way to solve the problem of vehicular pollution. Admittedly, there are obvious problems surrounding implementation. The lack of adequate public transport to handle extra demand, an understaffed traffic police force to check violations and the counterfeiting of extra number plates are just some of the implementation issues that could arise. The problem of containing vehicular air pollution in Delhi, however, is not just relegated to the “odd/even” formula. In a 2013 report, the Centre Pollution Control Board reported that certain centers conducting checks for emissions had a fake or defective software. Poor monitoring and rule enforcement across India is a consequence of understaffed regional environment departments across various levels of administration, starting at the Centre. A Parliamentary committee report submitted in April confirmed the same. In October, the Supreme Court (SC) had imposed an “Environment Compensation Charge” (ECC) of Rs 700 and Rs 1,300 on commercial vehicles entering Delhi, in addition to the toll tax. Beginning November 1 for four months on a trial basis, this initiative was an attempt to check the notoriously high pollution levels in the city. On the day of commencement, however, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation’s toll contractor was unable to collect the additional levy at toll booths in Delhi. The toll contractor was unequivocal in stating that such a tax collection was an “impossible task” in light of its staff’s field experience or the lack thereof. Once again, the cocktail of a poor regulatory structure and lax enforcement of rules have come to haunt Delhi’s bid to reduce pollution levels.
Another important step that Delhi must take is to significantly enhance the bus connectivity. Even after ten years, the total number of buses put for city services remain in the range of 6,000. The problem of vehicular traffic also lies with citizens, who own cars. According to a recent study, cars occupy 50 to 70 percent of road space in the national capital but carry only 17-20 percent of its travelers. As a result of the recently announced “odd/even” policy, authorities must be careful to note that many consumers, especially in the high-income bracket, could buy two cars—one with an odd number and another with even number—to evade the Delhi government’s efforts. What’s worse, approximately 40-50 percent of cars sold in the national capital run on diesel, which is a known carcinogen and emitter of greenhouse gasses. Besides vehicular pollution, the Delhi government is likely to shut the coal-based Badarpur thermal power plant on “high pollution days”, according to unverified reports. A study conducted by CSE found that the Badarpur thermal power station in Delhi is one of India’s most polluting and inefficient power plants. However, concerns will emerge about the city’s ability to source the vast amounts of power it requires, in case the Delhi government decides to move ahead with the decision.