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Forced to live under grey skies

TreeTake is a monthly bilingual colour magazine on environment that is fully committed to serving Mother Nature with well researched, interactive and engaging articles and lots of interesting info.

Forced to live under grey skies

‘Severe Plus’- that is how NCR Air Pollution is defined on the basis of National Air Quality Index, in quantitative terms. Put simply, that means, above 500 PM levels. But does the data do justice in qualitative terms?

Forced to live under grey skies

Thinking Point

While the immediate image that comes to mind when one says air pollution in NCR, is that of Delhi, the problem is not just limited to the city alone. One has to understand that it affects the entire region in particular and is, at the same time, a global issue…

Himanshi Shukla

‘Severe Plus’- that is how NCR Air Pollution is defined on the basis of National Air Quality Index, in quantitative terms. Put simply, that means, above 500 PM levels. But does the data do justice in qualitative terms? The Supreme Court disagrees, as does the general public, for whom the sky is not blue anymore, but a perpetual haze of grey. It has captured the imagination of the public, like never before, gaining notoriety as a ‘gas chamber’ or the ‘pollution capital of the world’. The problems and even their solutions are not unknown. Then why is it that the people are left ‘gasping for air’?

Why NCR Pollution is quite unlike any other?

“The NCR region and the adjoining areas witness extraordinary amount of air pollution, come the winter season. So much so, that Delhi has earned the notorious tag of a ‘gas chamber’. While there are specific causes, the overall effect can only be understood by the myriad of conditions created due to these causes. The first and foremost reason is a higher vehicle to people ratio than other cities, despite having a well-knit public transport system. Also, most of the vehicles are CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) based, which has proved to be detrimental. The CNG is thicker in volume and a denser fuel than petrol or diesel. So, with the onset of the winter season, fog and smoke combine with CNG and it creates such an envelope from which, the already polluted atmospheric gases are unable to escape (the wind speed is slow) and the sunrays aren’t able to penetrate either. This trap is what we call as a ‘gas chamber’. If one contrasts this with a coastal city, such as Mumbai, which is also industrialized and urbanised, one finds that there are frequent rains due to land breeze-sea breeze effect, and so the atmospheric pollution is continuously washed off. Then there are other factors like presence of highly polluting industries, which simply flout the environmental norms, and are hand in glove with the officials. This can be attested from the fact that they discharge untreated sewage water into rivers like Yamuna and Gomti. So, while the individual acts like a farmer burning stubble or a person burning wood or coal for warmth in winter may have a minor effect, it is inevitably these larger factors which are primarily responsible,” says Amina Hasan, Associate Professor, Department of Geography, Avadh Girls’ Degree College, University of Lucknow.

While the immediate image that comes to mind when one says NCR, is that of Delhi, the problem is not just limited to the city alone. One has to understand that it affects the entire region in particular and is, at the same time, a global issue. The effects, as witnessed by Isha Priya Singh, Digital Content Creator and a former resident of Lucknow, whenever she visits the city, were recalled by her! She tells: “Come autumn and the air quality of entire North India, not just Delhi NCR, starts deteriorating. As someone who stays abroad, I can feel a marked difference in air quality when I visit Lucknow, my hometown, during monsoon vs when visit after Diwali. Vehicular and industrial emissions ss well as construction dust pollute our cities all round the year, but monsoon rains wash them off, to some extent. After that, winds stop, winter haze sets in and the conditions worsen. Fireworks during autumn festivals and stubble burning by farmers take this pollution to hazardous levels. However, most of us don't want to acknowledge these causes. One group likes to defend fireworks, the other takes up the cause of farmers and fights for their right to burn stubble. Governments don't dare to ban either crackers or stubble burning for the fear of losing precious votes. So basically, what should have been a question of air pollution and public health has become a question of vehicle emission versus stubble burning versus fire crackers.”

“Stubble burning is a problem harder to solve but why can't we do away with crackers? They are purely for entertainment. What upsets me more is that people burst crackers not just on Diwali day, they do it every day for ten days before and after Diwali. It doesn't stop there because then the wedding season fireworks begin. If we feel that it is ritualistic to burst crackers on Diwali, let's do it only for that! Why allow it for weddings? I was in Lucknow throughout November and I must confess I returned with burning eyes and a choked throat each time I ventured out in the city,” she said.

What measures have been taken and what has been the progress so far?

Report of CPCB in compliance to Hon’ble NGT Order dated 05.11.2020 in OA No. 249/2020 in the matter of Tribunal on its own motion Versus Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change and Others acknowledges some harsh truths. In its order regarding “Ban on fire-crackers, NGT” had issued certain directions. The relevant para [para 48 (vii)] is reproduced below:

“(i) There will be total ban against sale or use of all kinds of fire crackers in the NCR from midnight of November, 9 -10, 2020 to the midnight of November 30 - December 1, 2020, to be reviewed thereafter.

(ii) Direction (i) will also apply to all cities/towns in the country where the average of ambient air quality during November (as per available data of last year) fall under 'poor' and above category.

(iii) The cities/towns where air quality is ‘moderate’ or below, only green crackers be sold and the timings for use and bursting of crackers be restricted to two hours during festivals, like Diwali, Chhat, New Year/Christmas Eve etc., as may be specified by the concerned State. This direction is on pattern of direction of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in (2019) 13 SCC 523 which we are applying to areas moderately polluted or below air quality due to aggravated effect during Covid-19, as already noted.”

The CPCB and the State PCBs/PCCs were, as per the order, to regularly monitor the air quality during this period which was to be uploaded on their respective websites. CPCB was to compile information on the subject, including the status of compliance of this order from all the States/UTs. Consequently, CPCB compiled a report stating: “CPCB carried out ambient air quality and noise level monitoring (Annexure-I) on selected pre-Deepawali day (09.11.2020) and on Deepawali day (14.11.2020) in Delhi like previous years… In 2019 the PM10 was increased by 70% on Diwali day compared to Pre Diwali day. PM2.5 was increased by 149% on Diwali day over Pre Diwali day. In 2020, on Diwali day decrease in PM10 and PM2.5 was observed compared to Pre Diwali day by about 16% and 18%. This reduction is perhaps due to about 6% reduction in contribution of stubble burning this year.”

Interestingly, as per the NGT order, the state pollution control boards were also to submit their compliance reports to the CPCB, but a careful examination of the CPCB report reveals that none of the bordering states of NCR undertook such compliance reports. When enquired about the same by TreeTake, they were unresponsive.

As per Wikipedia archives: “The Delhi Government introduced an odd-even formula in November 2017, in which the odd/even numberplate vehicles were assigned certain days in a week, failing which they had to pay fines. Local governments of various states also implemented measures such as tighter vehicle emissions' norms, higher penalties for burning rubbish and better control of road dust. On 14 November 2021 the air quality index of Delhi reached 465 and in response to the severe air quality index, the Delhi government announced the closure of all educational institutions for a week from November 15 after the Supreme Court raised concerns over the deteriorating air quality index. On 17 November as the was no improvement on the condition of the air quality index in Delhi. The Commission for Air Quality Monitoring (CAQM) directed that all schools, colleges and educational institutions will be closed until further notice, in Delhi and in NCR. Other than this the entries of trucks have been banned in Delhi, all construction activities have been halted till 21 November 2021 and 6 out of 11 thermal power plants in Delhi in a radius of 300km have been shut down till 30 November, in an effort to reduce pollution and improve the air quality index.  The Delhi government said that to control the pollution in Delhi they will also be adding 1000 extra CNG buses will be implemented. The Civil Defence Unit will also be checking the registrations and pollution certificates of the cars randomly to curb the pollution. Diesel cars above 10 years and Petrol cars about 15 years are banned in Delhi due to the pollution they cause. The Supreme Court of India also suggested that government officers living in government colonies should either commute by car-pooling together or by public transport.  

On 18 November Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board announced that schools will no longer be closed due to air pollution in Noida and Ghaziabad. The Delhi Government on 27 November 2021, banned the entry of commercial petrol and diesel vehicles in Delhi in view of the increasing pollution in Delhi. “The efforts by the governments have been mostly knee-jerk reactions and lack an overarching strategy or a well-co-ordinated response. Some positive measures like the formation of the Commission on Air Quality have been taken up and that gives us some hope,” says Shivendra Dutt, Deputy Manager, POCT group.

As reported by the Press Information Bureau on 9th December, 2021: “Enforcement Task Force (ETF) of the Commission for Air Quality Management in Delhi-NCR orders for immediate closure of 228 numbers of units / sites. Rigorous inspections in units in the NCR, across air pollution contributing sectors, continue unabated through 40 Flying Squads constituted by the Commission 1215 number of cumulative inspections have been carried out till 7th December. Flying Squads particularly check for compliance in respect of various directions and orders issued by the Commission from time to time towards abatement of air pollution, particularly for measures to be taken for the critical winter months, including related statutory environmental rules / regulations and guidelines issued by the agencies concerned in the Central and State Governments. General compliance levels reported to be satisfactory and improving over the days. However, serious violations still being reported across sectors; majorly in Industrial units, Construction & Demolition project sites, use of Diesel Generator Sets in industrial installation/ commercial complexes and residential set ups. In geographical terms, such gross violations have been reported across the respective jurisdictions in the National Capital Region, with 38, 48, 104 and 38 cases reported from NCT of Delhi and NCR Districts of Haryana, UP and Rajasthan respectively.”

The cat being belled, now is the time to tame it

The monitoring and management of air quality in the Delhi-NCR region has been done by multiple bodies including the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the state pollution control boards, the state governments in the region, including Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan, and the EPCA. They, in turn are monitored by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC), and the Supreme Court itself, which monitors air pollution as per the judgment in ‘M C Mehta vs Union of India, 1988. EPCA (Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control Authority), was a Central Government constituted committee in the year 1998 for the National Capital Region in compliance with the Supreme Court order dated 7th January, 1998.

As per the PRS Legislative Research: “The Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Ordinance, 2021 dissolves the EPCA. The Ordinance provides for the constitution of a Commission for better co-ordination, research, identification, and resolution of problems related to air quality in the National Capital Region (NCR) and adjoining areas. Adjoining areas have been defined as areas in the states of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh adjoining the NCR where any source of pollution may cause adverse impact on air quality in the NCR.  Functions of the Commission include: (i) co-ordinating actions taken under the Ordinance by concerned state governments (Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh), (ii) planning and executing plans to prevent and control air pollution in the NCR, (iii) providing a framework for identification of air pollutants, (iv) conducting research and development through networking with technical institutions, (v) training and creating a special workforce to deal with issues related to air pollution, and (vi) preparing various action plans such as increasing plantation and addressing stubble burning.

Powers of the Commission include: (i) restricting activities influencing air quality, (ii) investigating and conducting research related to environmental pollution impacting air quality, (iii) preparing codes and guidelines to prevent and control air pollution, and (iv) issuing directions on matters including inspections, or regulation which will be binding on the concerned person or authority.  Further, the Commission may impose and collect environment compensation from farmers causing pollution by stubble burning.  This compensation will be prescribed by the central government. The Commission will be the sole authority with jurisdiction over matters defined in the Ordinance (such as air quality management).  In case of any conflict, the orders or directions of the Commission will prevail over the orders of the respective state governments, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), state PCBs, and state-level statutory bodies. The Commission will consist of: (i) a chairperson, (ii) an officer of the rank of a Joint Secretary as the member-secretary and Chief Coordinating Officer, (iii) a currently serving or former Joint Secretary from the central government as a full-time member, three independent technical members with expertise related to air pollution, and (iv) three members from non-government organisations.  The Chairperson and members of the Commission will have a tenure of three years or till the age of seventy years, whichever is earlier. The Commission will also include ex-officio members: (i) from the central government and concerned state governments, and (ii) technical members from CPCB, Indian Space Research Organisation, and NITI Aayog.  It may also appoint representatives of certain ministries.

Shivendra Dutt, Deputy Manager, POCT Group, comments: “The intent behind the ordinance should be welcomed, as it corrects the faulty institutional architecture. It fixes responsibility and accountability in a single institution and not delegating the powers into multiple bodies. But the path that it will take up from here will determine the success of this ordinance, as also of the institution of the newly formed commission. It should be able to take up the intended reforms and take up measures with the urgency that the matter requires. In other words, the question of who will bell the cat has been resolved, but how far the cat is tamed, remains to be seen.”

What is the newly launched DSS- early warning forecast system all about?

Gaurav Govardhan, Senior Scientist Indian Institute of Tropical Metrology (IITM), Pune, said: “Delhi, the capital city of India, has been witnessing polluted autumns and winters during the recent decade. The post-harvest burning of paddy-crop residue in the neighbouring states and the local emissions of pollutants, with prevalent conducive meteorology, are responsible for the poor air quality in the capital city. Back in 2018-19, the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, under the guidance of the Ministry of Earth Sciences, India, led the development of an 'Air Quality Early Warning System' (AQEWS) to alert the citizens and the policymakers about the possible severe air-quality events about 7-10 days in advance. However, the policymakers need more precise information on the potential sources responsible for the degraded air quality during a forecast severe air-quality event. Such information would help them monitor and control such emission sources and thus assist them in making decisions to manage air quality. Realizing this need, we have now extended the AQEWS with a 'Decision Support System' (DSS) for air-quality management in Delhi. DSS employs the state-of-the-science online chemistry transport model 'Weather Research and Forecasting with Chemistry' (WRF-Chem). The modelling set-up utilizes the anthropogenic emissions inventory prepared by 'The Energy and Resources Institute' (TERI) for Delhi and the surrounding 19 districts. The system assimilates a) PM 2.5 data from the 'Central Pollution Control Board' (CPCB) monitoring stations across the northern region of India, and b) satellite retrieved aerosol optical depth from 'Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer' (MODIS) instrument onboard TERRA and AQUA satellites. Moreover, DSS uses the Active Fire count data from the MODIS instrument to generate near-real-time fire emissions. This utility is especially critical considering the agricultural burning activities occurring in the northern region of India post-monsoon. The DSS runs with a horizontal grid spacing of 10 km and generates the forecasts and decision-support information for the next 120 hours (i.e., five days). DSS provides quantitative information about: the contribution of emissions from Delhi and the surrounding 19 districts to the air quality in Delhi; the contribution of emissions from 8 different emission sectors in Delhi to the air quality Delhi; the contribution from biomass-burning activities in the neighbouring states to the degradation of air quality in Delhi, and the effects of possible emission source-level interventions on the forecast severe air-quality event in Delhi. This information would explicitly highlight the most important emission sources responsible for the degraded air quality in Delhi and suggest possible solutions to the policymakers. With a plethora of quantitative data, the AQEWS integrated with DSS will be an essential tool for air-quality management in Delhi and the surrounding region.”

What are the sources of the pollutants and what are its health impact?

A study by IIT Kanpur (Professor Mukesh Sharma and others) about the chemical composition of the pollutants, concludes: “In Delhi, one of the major sources was the biomass burning (stubble burning) that compromised the air quality. Vehicular emission comes at the second level, and at the third level are the secondary pollutants, which start their emission as gases, but in the atmosphere, because of the photochemistry, they turn into particles and reach the receptors (where they are collected). These particles have a major contribution in the air pollution of Delhi and the adjoining areas. Surprisingly, waste management also contributed to the air pollution, especially the burning of municipal solid waste.” Professor Chitrashee Ghosh, Department of Environmental Studies, Delhi University tells: “The top harmful pollutants that are responsible for degrading ambient air quality are Particulate Matters, Nitrogen oxide, Sulphur Oxide, Organic Compounds. Out of all these pollutants, Particulate Matters are the most complex mixture of organic and inorganic substances, present in the atmosphere as both liquids and solids. Particulate Matters are emitted through both natural and anthropogenic factors. These Coarse particulates can be regarded as those with an aerodynamic diameter greater than 2.5 μm (micrometres), and fine particles less than 2.5 μm. course particles usually contain earth crustal materials and fugitive dust from roads and industries. Fine particles contain the secondarily formed aerosols, combustion particles and re-condensed organic and metallic vapours. The acid component of particulate matter generally occurs as fine particles.”

“Prolonged exposure to such pollution levels results in aggravated cardiovascular and respiratory illness. Ischemic heart disease is a leading cause of death for 66891 children per year due to indoor pollutants and an average of 62 persons due to exposure of outdoor PM 2.59 in Delhi. According to WHO, it is also the cause of death for around 7 million people worldwide every year,” Professor Ghosh adds.

Suggestions and way forward

Professor Ghosh suggests: “We need to achieve the target of 20-30% decrease of air pollution by 2024. To achieve this target much needs to be done. We have to find out workable and deployable technologies to curb pollution. We have to test on pilot basis, and to submit the detailed report on these promising technologies, prototypes, designs, to take them further for large-scale intervention. To control the emissions of toxins in the air basic principles of environmental laws and treaties has to be introduced which will be centred on the common themes, the polluter pays principle, Principle of non-discrimination, Precautionary principle, Principle-common but differentiated responsibility and Principle of intergenerational equity. Besides, we have to develop Urban Green Space to Mitigate Air Pollution.”

Isha Priya Singh suggests: “About vehicular pollution, we need to find ways of reducing the traffic not accommodating its ever-increasing volume. How much can widen our roads and for how long can we go on cutting trees in the name road widening? The authorities must get state-of-the-art public transport systems in place, so that people from all sections of the society feel encouraged to use it and not drive their own cars all the time.  Also, the use of metro should be encouraged, for example, the Lucknow metro is terribly underutilized! Bring affordable electric public vehicles to act as feeders for metros. Something needs to be done soon otherwise we will face a health emergency graver than covid, very soon.”

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