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Clean air concerns

Combatting poor air quality requires more than an emergency action plan. It requires an effective counter-strategy to cure the degrading air

Clean air concerns

In Delhi, the only coal-based power plant has been shut; across the National Capital Region, industries that use coal as fuel have been asked to stop operations; all construction activity has been brought to a halt; and, stone crushers, brick kilns and hot-mix plants have been shut. All for over a week. Old diesel vehicles are being taken off the roads. Then there are strict orders to ensure that garbage is not burnt; authorities are trying their best to control dust. All this to contain the deadly and toxic air pollution as winter advances and weather turns adverse. These are extraordinary emergency actions taken to deal with an urgent public health crisis.

The fact is that with all this done, air pollution levels in the last week have stayed in the very poor category and even going to severe on some days when weather was adverse and winds brought emissions from burning crops. The bottom line is even with the region practically closed down, air quality is still nowhere close to where we need it to be. This should worry us and make us think.

So, what do we do? First, it is clear that the scale of the crisis is enormous and piecemeal measures will not work. Second, we cannot deal with this crisis through emergency actions. The Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP), which my colleagues and I proposed and got implemented, was designed only to take decisive action when pollution levels exceeded danger levels. It is doing what it can, but it is not meant and cannot be a substitute for action to reduce pollution.

Action has to be at a scale that matches the crisis. This is critical. In early 2000, when Delhi introduced compressed natural gas (CNG) as a fuel for its vehicles, it was at scale. As many as 100,000 vehicles converted to CNG in a period of two years. Most importantly, it was targeted at vehicles that travel the most miles—all buses and autorickshaws in the city made the transition to clean fuel. CNG supply was built and scaled-up quickly; new manufacturing facilities for CNG vehicles were created; technology was found, adapted and made to work after addressing safety concerns.

The scale was also in the introduction of cleaner fuel and vehicle technology. We went from 10,000 parts per million (ppm) of sulphur in fuel to 500 ppm of sulphur. This jump was drastic and brought us big benefits. We could see the evening sky and marvel at the stars at night.

But our current action does not match the scale of the crisis. In my view, the biggest victories we have had over the past year is to ban the use of dirty pet coke as fuel; to set standards for the emissions of sulphur and nitrogen dioxide from industry; and, to agree to move to 10 ppm of sulphur in petrol and diesel by 2020—Bharat Stage VI (BSVI) fuel and emission standards.

But these will not add up unless much more can be done. We first need really tough enforcement of emission standards in industries and other sources. This is our Achilles heel. We cannot implement pollution control partly because we do not have the institutional wherewithal for ensuring compliance—our pollution control boards are overworked, understaffed and do not even have the basic equipment to monitor emissions. Over the years we have outsourced compliance with the private sector and it just does not work. Then in the past few years, in the name of ease of doing business, we have emasculated even the little oversight saying that is was leading to "Inspector Raj" and high transaction costs. What we have replaced it with is an ineffective and poorly conceived system of online monitoring—a scam that needs to be called out. In fact, it is being called out in this season of pollution.

Then this time when BSVI is introduced, sulphur in fuel will be reduced from 50 ppm to 10 ppm—it is not drastic. This time, it is not the quality of fuel, but the advancement in vehicle technology to control emissions that is big. The drastic difference is in the emissions from vehicles, which is expected to go down by 60-90 per cent. But these vehicles come only in April 2020—which in itself is a huge victory, given the opposition from automobile companies. The fact also is that getting the benefits of BSVI will take time as fleet transition will take time—India is not a rich country where all old vehicles can be pushed out of the road overnight.

So, what are the options? What must we do for our Right to Clean Air? I will discuss this next fortnight.

(The author is Director General of Centre for Science and Environment and the Editor of Down To Earth magazine. The views expressed are strictly personal)

Sunita Narain

Sunita Narain

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