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A familiar refrain

Delhi’s air pollution is the talk of the town again. For solutions, the masters on the top must leave political rivalry aside and work together for larger public and national interest. Many similar pollution hotspots of the country, ignored today, may become truly problematic tomorrow

A familiar refrain
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Delhi's air pollution has become Delhi's annual mis-event of which the world is well aware and the locals are used to. After all, Delhi is on the top among the 20 most polluted cities in the world, beside another nine Indian cities in the same list. Ask what a resident thinks about it — a common response would be that it's the same pollution issue once again, year after year, where there will be just talks but no solution. Decades of experience says it is true. Talks would be on the same known issues and then, new research reports, government orders, political commentary, judicial directions, inspections and fines beside better sale of air purifiers, costlier residential flats and the media houses flooding with debates, ground reportage and breaking news until the winter season waves-off and pollution subsides.

With enough research and solutions explored years ago, a well-thought-out strategy and implemented action plans resulting in a much better air quality scenario in Delhi NCR could have been a reality by now. Unfortunately, it's not the case. The government wakes-up every winter only when problems start, with more talk and less work which every time, ultimately, reaches a dead-end because of political disagreements. Apparently, for the masters on the top — the political fraternity, this mis-event becomes just an opportunity to score against rivals. The problem, therefore, seems not going away anytime soon. Moreover, whatever actions are being taken are largely knee-jerk reactions which miss a long-term vision and a time-bound strategic action plan.

Science behind it

The pollutants concentration levels in ambient air signifies the air quality around us. There are 12 such pollutants for which the Union Government has stipulated safer limits — known as the national ambient air quality monitoring standards (NAAQMS). Three of them — particulate matters (mainly PM 10 and PM 2.5) beside sulphur dioxide (SO2) and Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), are common pollutants that affect the respiratory and cardiovascular system. PM 2.5 is more harmful as it is tiny enough to penetrate into the bloodstream through the lungs. New research now indicates the growing pollution issue of PM 1.0, which is finer than PM 2.5 and is more harmful. As of now, NAAQMS has no prescribed limit for PM 1.0, neither it is considered in AQI estimation.

Poor air quality is a real threat to life, more for sensitive groups such as old age and children. Air pollution is one of the biggest threats to life — as a WHO report of 2016 says that ambient air pollution causes around 4.2 million premature death in a year, over 90 per cent of which happens in low- and middle-income countries in South- East Asia and Western-Pacific regions, India is one of them.

Since these pollutants are contributed by various sources — industry, vehicles, road dust, biomass and municipal solid waste burning etc., varying airshed-wise, it is important to identify which source contributes how much and prioritise the actions for control accordingly. This is what is done under source apportionment studies — many of such studies have been carried for Delhi- NCR including IIT Kanpur study, IITM study and ARAI & TERI study among others; all indicating nearly same sources and contributions. The road dust, transport, construction, agricultural crop residue and biomass burning, power plants and other industries are the main sources of PM 10 and PM 2.5 whereas transport, power plants and DG sets contribute most in NO2, power plants and other industries contribute most to SO2 emission.

Geography & meteorology

Delhi, the densely populated city is landlocked between Uttar Pradesh in the east and from Haryana in remaining three directions which adds to Delhi's pollution issues with significant emission from crop residue burning, smaller industries and biomass burning. On India's geographical map, Delhi appears in the bowl surrounded by the Thar desert in west and south-west, flood plains in the south-east and by the high Himalayas in all remaining directions which puts it in a depression. Prevalent wind direction gives no respite — north-western wind to Delhi brings pollutants from Pakistan, Punjab and Haryana whereas eastern wind from the Bay of Bengal brings pollutants from the cities on the way. Being surrounded by the high Himalayas from most of the sides, the escape route of wind from Delhi is also narrow, wind speed is low, the pollutants, therefore, accumulate here. In addition, it also gets storm dust from the middle-east and Thar at times. Winter brings further misfortune when the ambient temperature goes low, and ground-level air doesn't get enough hot sun rays to rise high, which results in inversion of polluted air causing thick polluted air in Delhi.

Monitoring the issue

The air quality monitoring is carried by a network of manual and automatic air quality monitors being operated by the governments(s) — merely in around 260 cities out of 5,000 cities and towns in India. Just 10 per cent of these are monitored using real-time monitors and mostly by manual monitors which are normally not calibrated and maintained inaccurate and provides insufficient data.

What's worse? Delhi- NCR and similar hot spots across the country fail to comply with NAAQMS limits which in-fact are lenient compared to the WHO's prescription of safe limits. Indian NAAQMS limits are nearly double at 60 and 100 μg/m3 for PM2.5 and PM10 (24-hour mean) respectively compared to what WHO prescribes as safer limits at 25 and 50 μg/m3. Similar is the story for SO2 and NO2 limits.

Based on the monitored pollution data, air quality index (AQI) is calculated for the region which, instead of pollutant wise level, signifies overall pollution level of an area. Higher the AQI, higher the pollution and health impacts.

Efforts made

Sources of pollution and the solutions are known but implementation is in question. Except for the crucial step of adopting CNG-run buses in the past that gave a breather to Delhi, an important initiative adopted recently was the implementation of BS-VI standard fuel since April 2018 in Delhi. This is expected to reduce 70-90 per cent of PM and NO2 emissions compared to BS-IV diesel vehicles. Still, emission control from already running BS-III and BS-IV fuel vehicles needs to be carried with retrofitting PM filters, use of low sulphur fuel and checking pollution periodically. This is significant since vehicular pollution contributes to nearly 40 per cent of the PM emission in Delhi. Another success story is closure of NTPC, Badarpur power plant — the prime source of SO2 and contributor to nearly 10 per cent of PM emission. Similar success was the ban of petcoke use in Delhi- NCR, although, high sulphur coal is being used in the NCR industries which negates the benefit from petcoke ban.

Not to forget, these actions came only after the judicial intervention while the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) stood with industries to delay the deadline. The Union Ministry of Petroleum and Natural gas, however, deserves appreciation for implementation of BS-VI fuel in Delhi much before the 2020 deadline. The Environmental Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) played a key role in pushing the government for these reforms. Unfortunately, increasing tussle with the union government lately made it pricking in the eyes resulting in its replacement by a new body- there are whispers in the corridor. This high-powered 'Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Regions and Adjoining Areas', constituted in October 2020 brings great expectation. Let's hope that it doesn't become just another body among the CPCB, the DPCC, the NGT, the Supreme Court, the MoEF&CC, the Prime Minister's Office Panel with no real difference at the end.

Hurdles to cross

The control of emissions from point sources such as vehicle, industry and DG sets use is easier compared to the control of road dust emission, crop residue burning in NCR, biomass and municipal residue burning and dust emission from construction sites where sources are spread across multiple stakeholder groups and areas.

Poor road infrastructure, maintenance and encroachment are the key reasons for road dust emission which has never been focussed on except in a few high-profile areas. The institutional capability, manpower and budget with municipal bodies and investment by the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways which needs to play, get caught in State - Centre dispute. For emission control from construction sites, orders and directions of the government remain on paper and not implemented on the ground except a few key areas. Construction materials and fly ash moves freely in open trucks, kept in open and used without any control, even during the ban. The problem of biomass burning has a similar story. Dealing with agricultural crop residue burning which happens in Punjab, UP, and Haryana is the most complicated issue. Being ruled by different political parties, these states have never come to an agreement for a solution — political rivalry plays well here. Removal of crop residue is part of the agriculture cycle which is farmers' livelihood, therefore, preventing them from doing so without giving alternative solutions is kind of barking up the wrong tree.

Though closure of NTPC-Badarpur has helped in marginal pollution reduction in Delhi, emission from smaller industries using poor quality coal and other fuels in Delhi and NCR adds significantly to the problems. Unfortunately, the smaller industries in clusters lack investment capacity and skill to adopt good PM, SO2 and NOx control and proper operation of a real-time monitoring system. Thus, they continue to run uninterrupted and pollute. Are these issues unnoticed? No, besides missing political harmony, the absence of enough regulatory capability, government's leniency and corruption allow it to happen.

Making it happen

Delhi's air pollution is not an isolated event and dealing with it certainly requires the Delhi government to get support from neighbouring states. Similarly, it can't ignore the Centre, not only because it has more power, but also because it can offer funds for environmental programmes and infrastructure development and assure coordination between the states. The Central and state governments must keep the rivalry aside and work in the best interest of the common citizen and the nation. Air pollution in Delhi and other cities in India has already brought in enough bad names in the world, not aligned to India's international commitment and obligations.

Dealing with crop residue burning problem requires full-fledged plan, active and effective system, preferably, run by the Centre in coordination with the Delhi and neighbouring state governments. Use of better seeder, better harvester, bacterial culture to turn the residue into manure, easily available logistics and supply chain to collect the residue and use in industries, timely compensation, awareness, training and awards to the performers are some known solutions which need to be implemented. Road dust emission control needs development and maintenance of infrastructure, proper pavement, dust suppression, cleaning and plantation in open space which again demands the Centre and Delhi Government to work together, invest in infrastructure, and manpower for maintenance. Regulation and control of biomass and municipal solid waste burning, poor fuel use in industry and emission from construction sites etc. needs adequate skilled manpower and infrastructure with a relevant regulatory body such as pollution control boards and municipal bodies who can watch, act and regulate for compliance. The centre's thrust to implement much-delayed pollution norms for SPM, SO2 and NOx control in coal-based power plants, will give a great advantage.

One of the most crucial missing links is an adequate air quality monitoring network to get sufficient and correct information in time. It is not affordable for a vast country like India to cover the entirety of 5,000 cities with costly real-time monitors, therefore an area-specific and properly conceptualised network of high-end monitors and economical sensor-based monitors can be planned. Whereas high-end monitors will avail the most accurate data at crucial places, sensor-based monitors will substantiate the data to create a holistic database to work upon. One must not forget that these monitors are not fit and forget systems. Therefore, skilled and trained manpower is needed to look after them and regulate based on the data.

Delhi is not alone a polluted place, there are many similar pollution hotspots in different parts of the country such as Kanpur, Patna, Faridabad, Lucknow and Agra. It would be the biggest mistake to ignore them until they become trouble centres. Centre and state government must take immediate action well before these areas pose Delhi kind of a situation. It would be best that initiatives at the ground are taken well in coordination with the national level policy framework that helps to meet the national and international goal. Noble initiatives such as shifting from coal-based power to renewable energy, adopting cleaner fuel, promoting electric mobility and public transport etc., have helped the countries to assure cleaner air, India must follow. The world has handled Delhi like pollution cases, like that in China, with a well-thought strategy, action plan and initiatives. New India can certainly do it, that too indigenously and democratically.

The writer is an environmental research & advocacy professional. Views expressed are personal

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