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What's Next?

With the winter months approaching and the odd-even scheme having been lifted, the uncertainty over solutions to Delhi’s air quality and the road ahead to deal with pollution remains quite obscure

As the Indo-Gangetic plain turns red with the onset of winters, dangerous levels of air pollution embed the city and Delhi garners attention as the epicenter of the problem. This has been a trend for the last few years. As an emergency combat measure, the Delhi Government implemented the odd-even scheme to tackle the hazardous levels of air pollution.

But, to what extent would the measure be successful in curbing the pollution levels? Commenting on the issue, Justice Arun Mishra questioned, "What is the logic behind the odd-even scheme? Banning diesel vehicles we can understand, but what is the point of the odd-even scheme?" Amidst rising concerns, the Supreme Court had directed the Delhi government to put forward pollution data of Delhi for the month of October till November 14, which the state government has failed to deliver.

The dilemma

When the neighbouring states of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh start burning large amounts of unused crop residues to quickly clean the fields after harvesting, Delhi becomes the talking point of the entire nation. The burning creates a thick cloud of smoke which causes atmospheric pollution and results in major threats to human health.

Associate Professor at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at IIT Tirupati, Suresh Jain said, "More and better machinery to cut the stubble should be accessible and available to farmers. Rather than just blaming the states, it has to ensured that the farmers have access to such machinery. Creating a market for stubble would also be a viable option for the farmers either."

But, is the burning of crops the exclusive concern and if stopped will it help in creating a pollution-free Delhi? During manual road sweeping, leftover dust on the sides of the roads is stored as a heap, which gets re-entrained when traffic movement resumes during the day. The same goes for the burning of garbage and industrial waste, this requires stricter enforcement.

Stubble burning is not the only reason. Delhi has various sources of pollution around the year. An Environmentalist at Swechha, Vimlendu Jha says, "Construction and demolition contribute 20-30 per cent to Delhi's pollution. Keeping a tab on illegal construction and demolition is somewhere authorities need to tighten up if the overall pollutant levels need to degrade."

Dust is responsible for 30-40 per cent of pollution in Delhi. Construction activities like excavation, block cutting, demolition, road construction, mixing, drilling, loading and unloading of debris are the major contributors of dust. Even friction of tyres during hard application of brakes contributes. In addition, the movement of heavy trucks at construction sites increases the number of particles by crushing and pulverizing them on the surface of roads. Vacuum sweeping, mechanical sweeping with water wash, use of water sprinkler, and heavy- or light-duty trucks should be equipped with vacuum cleaners to remove road dust.

The road ahead

A limit on the number of cars being sold in a year should be worked out by the government. The odd-even scheme reduces the number of vehicles on the road by half but if the total number of vehicles being sold keeps increasing then the scheme becomes redundant.

Interestingly, the Singapore Land Transport Authority fixes the quota of vehicles each year for bidding. The bidder has to pay for a 10-year Certificate of Entitlement (COE), which is expensive Taxes like, customs duty of 41 per cent, a registration fee of SGD 1,000 (Rs 52,660.72) for private vehicles and SGD 5,000 (Rs 2,63,303.59) for commercial vehicles. Another example is London, which limits the parking supply in Central London. This made travel to the city center expensive. Such approaches along with the public transport expansion had made a contrasting difference.

Though Delhi has a system of the efficient metro which was ranked second in 2014 among 18 other metro systems globally in terms of customer satisfaction. But in terms of ridership, it doesn't rank anywhere. It has 26 lakh footfall per day and is hugely overcrowded in the peak hours, whereas its counterpart Tokyo subway is handling daily 87 lakh commuters.

The Good and Bad of 'Odd-Even Formula' also suggests that in order to demotivate passengers to not use private transport, taxes like congestion charges could be introduced, so as to increase the cost of travelling for private mode users. This could be applicable on 5-6 days in a week from 12-14 hours in a day on few zones that are highly congested on peak hours just the way it has been done in London where £11.50 per day is charged in a particular zone.

School or institutes timings could be altered to reduce the congestion of travelling at the same time. For instance, It has been tried by local administrators of Gautam Budh Nagar in Noida in January 2019 which resulted in a drop in congestion by 20 per cent and pollution levels by 30-40 per cent.

If people are to switch to public transport then it should have last-mile connectivity and affordable too. Currently, the number of interchanges required if one takes public transport to reach one's destination is so high that people prefer private vehicles. If Delhi is well connected but surrounding areas like Noida and Gurgaon aren't, then air pollution of these areas affects the entire NCR region.

A study by C. B. Tripathi, Prashant Baredar, and Lata Tripathi on 'Air pollution in Delhi: biomass energy and suitable environmental policies are sustainable pathways for health safety' traces various measures that can be adopted all through the year to control air pollution. Mitigation of vehicular pollution can be done by the pollution control system for vehicles using advanced emission control technology, use of Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF) advancement in fuel quality for vehicles and popularisation of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), and building more bypass roads around Delhi to divert commercial vehicles. Also, the imposition of congestion charges on heavy vehicles, and scaling up electric vehicle production and sale including the required infrastructure could also act as a solution to bring down pollution.

The study also states that vehicular air pollution is responsible for an increase in risk factors for mental growth in children because it decreases the serum concentration of vitamin D metabolites as well as lower mean haze score. "Shutting down schools shouldn't be an option. My daughter, Ishani, is in class four but if it was her board year then it would affect her studies. Planting more trees like the spider plant that naturally purifies the air could also help. If the government directs schools to take up this initiative as a CSR activity, it should make a difference," says Sujata Todi, a mother of a school going student.

A vertical garden is another measure that can be implemented on a large scale. Various plants, small shrubs, perennial forages, grass cover in open areas can be planted. But Jha says, "Green cover is again a major issue. Cutting one tree and planting sampling is not enough because one tree will have a million leaves that help in purifying the air but few samplings don't do justice to it. Plus maintenance and following up on those samplings is another field where we are lacking behind."

Delhi and the two upwind states of Haryana and Punjab show an increase in coal consumption by 17.8 per cent from 2015-16 and 2018-19, while total petroleum consumption increased by 3.3 per cent over the same period, increasing emissions and complicating clean air efforts. Jha points out that in a bid to curb air pollution, Delhi did manage to shut two coal thermal power plants but what about the rest?

Recently there have been multiple discussions about air quality improvements in Delhi while some reports mention that Delhi has shown a 25 per cent decrease in air pollution levels between 2016-2018 as compared to 2012-2014. Criticising the claims Jha said, "25 per cent pollution reduction is a myth. There is no proper way to determine pollution reduction. Because temperature humidity, wind speed moisture content will not be the same as last year on the same date. Such environmental factors keep changing. There can be more rainy days compared to last year that will help in bringing down the level of pollution. You need to take into account meteorological and atmospheric conditions into account as well."

For pollution crisis situations we need big plans plus various well planned and thoroughly thought out plans, and spread it out as achievable goals. A combination of measures needs to be taken throughout the year to control air pollution. A single measure cannot alone help us in solving the problem.

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