Better readings, effective policy
With the odd-even experiment in its second phase, the Aam Aadmi Party-led government has made sure that faulty pollution figures do not undermine the campaign to reduce pollution in the national capital. In order to study the data available in a more effective manner, a new-three-tier air quality measurement has been installed across the national capital. Based on its findings during the first phase of the experiment, the Delhi government recorded that there was a “definitive declining trend” in the level of particulate matter (PM 2.5)—fine respirable particles that harm the respiratory system. However, other studies had claimed that in fact pollution levels rose by 50 percent in the first week of the odd-even plan. There is no real clarity on whether private cars significantly contribute to pollution levels in the national capital. Different studies had arrived at different conclusions. One of the key problems of the previous experiment was the absence of an effective air quality measurement system. For the second phase, therefore, a three-tier air quality monitoring mechanism has been set up at 74 locations in Delhi. “Existing real-time monitoring network gives the data of major parameters such as PM 2.5, PM 10 and NO2 throughout April in six prime locations of Delhi,” said a scientist with the Delhi Pollution Control Committee. “Manual monitoring stations will collect and monitor data at 10 different locations near roadside, 20 different residential areas and 15 industrial areas, thus, totaling 45 locations.” Besides a real-time monitoring network of the DPCC, the AAP-led government has initiated the “Hand Held Light Scattering System”—a multi-layered mechanism, which will be used to collect data from 55 locations. There are two instruments under this mechanism—one is a mobile van and the other will collect comparable air quality samples across Delhi and its border areas. According to data released by the Delhi government on Friday, major pollutants like PM 2.5 and PM 10 were well within the permissible limits. But the real test lies ahead once schools and offices reopen after the holiday period. Nonetheless, the greater availability of data will allow the AAP government to better formulate not only the modalities of the scheme but also its applicability in reducing pollution levels in the national capital. There is little doubt that the scheme has reduced traffic congestion in the national capital, based on commuter-derived feedback. But what if the scheme fails to reduce pollution by a significant amount? It’s an irrelevant question, since tackling air pollution requires policy interventions at multiple levels. In other words, the odd-even scheme is just one part of the solution.
Irrespective of these efforts a lot more must be done to reduce pollution in the city. According to a recent report by IIT Kanpur, road dust has been identified as the as the single biggest source (38 percent) of PM 2.5. To the uninitiated, road dust is earthen material or dirt that becomes airborne, primarily by the friction of tires moving on unpaved dirt roads and dust-covered paved roads. The government has made serious progress in its bid to tackle the menace of road dust. The Cabinet recently authorised the Public Works Department to vacuum-clean roads to reduce dust pollution in the Capital. If these roads are swept twice a month, road dust emission will see a significant reduction, according to the IIT Kanpur study. To mitigate the amount of dust in Delhi’s air, the AAP government has already implemented fines and plantation drives on unpaved footpaths and central verges. Besides these measures, the government has also proposed heavy fines on those trucks and vehicles that do not meet pollution standards. But there are key institutional bottlenecks that could stifle the implementation of these fines. As this column has stated in the past, the lack of adequate public transport poses the biggest hindrance to the experiment: “A mere addition of 1,000-2,000 buses will not do much to improve public transport. In fact, it could worsen the traffic situation in the capital. Besides broken seats and windows, minimal access for the disabled and no space to stow luggage, overcrowding in the Delhi Transport Corporation buses are major concerns. Those who do take the bus do it out of sheer necessity.” These basic features need to be repaired in existing buses. Moreover, commuters seek better punctuality and the implementation of enhanced safety measures. Another option is the Delhi metro. In order to tackle rising intake of commuters, the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation recently announced that 200 metro trains will make around 3,248 trips daily during the upcoming odd-even fortnight, a rise of about 56 trips over the existing arrangements. Moreover, 15 additional feeder buses will leave from stations across the city. But yet again, this may not be enough to fulfill demands of last-mile connectivity. The Delhi government must deregulate autorickshaw licenses and put an end to the artificial scarcity of CNG autos in Delhi to improve last-mile connectivity. But improving the state of public transport, de-regulating auto rickshaws and addressing the problem of road dust are merely some of the solutions to the problem of air pollution. Any significant change in air pollution levels will need policy interventions at levels that are sometimes beyond the jurisdiction of the Delhi government.