The “Right To Breathe” Clean Air is an integral part of the Fundamental ‘Right to Life’ enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution of India and the said fundamental right is being violated by the failure of the Union Government and the State Governments to keep the air pollution levels in Delhi-NCR below hazardous levels every year during the period between September to January. This year comes with its additional hazard of Covid-19…
During the lockdown imposed to halt the spread of SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused corona virus diseases or Covid-19, Delhi reclaimed its clear blue skyline for obvious reasons. But with almost all activities having resumed, the haze is coming back and how! But this winter may be a lot more choking. During winters the air quality reaches toxic levels. Crop residue burning and vehicular pollution are among the major reasons behind such high levels of air pollution. The government is implementing a comprehensive action plan to tackle it but it may not be enough. But Delhi and the National Capital Region are not alone and nearly all of northern India witnesses high levels of air pollution. Considering the adverse impact of air pollution globally, the World Health Organisation is organising a Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health from October 30 to November 1. Air pollution increase can damage lungs, reduce immune response and turn a mild Covid-19 infection into a serious one, global research has warned. Remember, high air pollution leads to increased episodes of coughing or sneezing that can spread Covid-19 faster. It’s no secret that inhaling the air in Delhi during winters is like smoking several cigarettes a day! Researchers also say that air pollution increases susceptibility to tuberculosis and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) caused by, again, a corona virus. Air pollution also triggers co-morbidities like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases and may increase Covid-19 fatalities, experts have cautioned.
As per the central government’s System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), the overall air quality in Delhi has been in the poor and very poor category so far this week. This is expected to dip further in the days ahead. Following the criticism from courts and the orders to devise comprehensive plans, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and other state governments including that of Delhi and nearby states have formulated plans to tackle air pollution. One such ‘Comprehensive action plan for air pollution control in Delhi and NCR (National Capital Region)’ that is led by the MoEFCC has already kicked off in the city. Under this, a graded response action plan is being implemented which ensures appropriate and coordinated response by different authorities as and when air pollution rises. It also includes satellite-based air pollution monitoring to check stubble burning during these months, strengthening of monitoring pollution from vehicles, action against visibly polluting vehicles including penalties, extensive awareness drive against polluting vehicles, checking overloading of vehicles and improvement in public transport among other actions. The Badarpur thermal power plant, running since 1973 and identified as one of the major sources of pollution in the Delhi-NCR area by the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority, was also closed down permanently last week to control pollution.
The Supreme Court of India, while hearing a case that sought a ban on manufacturing and sale of firecrackers across the country to curb air pollution, passed a series of measures to regulate it. Though it refused to impose a nationwide ban on the sale of firecrackers, SC ruled that only those crackers that are less polluting and within the prescribed noise levels and emission norms will be allowed to be sold. It banned online sale of firecrackers and stated that any such “e-commerce companies found selling crackers online will be hauled up for contempt of court and the Court may also pass, in that eventuality, orders of monetary penalties as well”. It also ruled that people will be allowed to burn crackers for two hours between 8-10 pm on Diwali and on any other festivals like Gurpurab and from 11:55 pm to 12:30 am for New Year and Christmas festivities. “Even for marriages and other occasions, sale of improved crackers and green crackers is only permitted,” the SC directed. While the SC permitted only green crackers (those with reduced emissions), it banned “manufacture, sale and use of joined firecrackers (series crackers or laris) … as the same causes huge air, noise and solid waste problems”. But the SC ruling on firecrackers may still not be enough to deal with the mammoth issue of air pollution. The SC has also appointed a One Man Committee of Justice (Retd.) Madan B. Lokur to monitor and take steps to prevent stubble burning in the states of Punjab, Haryana & Uttar Pradesh. A bench of Chief Justice SA Bobde, Justices AS Bopanna & V. Ramasubramaniun accepted the suggestion in the plea by a Class XII Student Aditya Dubey to appoint a one-man committee of Justice Lokur to prevent stubble burning, stating that the Chief secretaries of Punjab, Haryana & UP shall enable Justice Lokur to order to devise additional means and methods for preventing burning or stubble in the states. “This order not an indictment of any authority. We are only concerned that citizens of Delhi NCR are able to breathe fresh clean air and while the court is shut, we don't want anything to happen during these nine days,” said CJI SA Bobde.
The Delhi Pollution Control Committee has issued directions banning the use of diesel generators in the national capital from Oct 15 under the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP). “DPCC hereby bans the operation of generator sets of all capacities, run on diesel, petrol or kerosene in Delhi with effect from October 15 till further orders, excluding those used for essential or emergency services,” an official order read. Essential services include healthcare facilities, elevators, railway services, Delhi Metro, airports and interstate bus terminals and the data centre run by the National Informatics Centre. GRAP is a set of anti-pollution measures that come into force in Delhi and its vicinity towns according to the severity of the situation. The measures under GRAP were first implemented in Delhi-NCR in 2017. The measures include increasing bus and metro services, hiking parking fees and banning use of diesel generator sets when the air quality turns poor. When the situation turns “severe”, GRAP recommends closure of brick kilns, stone crushers and hot mix plants, sprinkling of water, frequent mechanised cleaning of roads and maximising power generation from natural gas. The measures to be followed in the “emergency” situation include stopping the entry of trucks in Delhi, ban on construction activities and introduction of the odd-even car rationing scheme.
Around this time, last year, a public health emergency was declared in Delhi as air pollution levels went off the charts. This meant various activities halted and the AAP government’s car-rationing scheme had to be rolled out. Like in previous years, the Supreme Court panned the Centre, the Delhi government as well as the neighbouring states for failing to control the problem of crop stubble burning. Last year, Punjab produced 20 million tonnes of paddy residue out of which 9 million tonnes were burnt, according to government data. In Haryana, 1.23 million tonnes out of the 7 million tonnes produced were burnt. This meant air pollution levels shot up and hospitals began getting overwhelmed by patients with respiratory complications in Delhi and other parts of North India. While the crisis triggers intense politics every year, farmers claim fire is the only economically viable solution to clear crop stubble and ready their fields for wheat and potato cultivation. They are warming up to machines, pushed by governments, to clear off crop stubble but issues like training to handle them remain.
Recently, Delhi’s Environment Minister Imran Hussain released a NASA image of north India that shows widespread crop burning – a common agricultural practice where farmers burn crop residue to quickly prepare field for sowing the new crop –Hussain stated that the crop residue burning in fields must be immediately halted failing which a serious health hazard awaits entire northern India. The environment minister of the national capital also emphasised that it was beyond any reasonable understanding as to why the menace was being ignored despite a well-known fact that the consequences will be disastrous in the coming days. He stressed that the graded response action plan was already enforced and requested Delhi residents to minimise the local pollution. He announced that there would be zero tolerance for garbage and requested to cover all the construction material to stop dust re-suspension. Hussain also announced that teams had been formed to carry out surprise inspections to check violations. “Very sad that central, Punjab and Haryana governments did absolutely nothing for the farmers. As a result, the farmers will suffer on one hand and Delhi will become a gas chamber soon,” Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal also tweeted recently.
Environmentalists feel that stubble burning is not the only source of air pollution and even in the case of stubble burning not much is being done for helping farmers. “The satellite data available so far shows a reduction in stubble burning but the crop season started late this year. Stubble burning is now picking up the pace and may increase in days to come,” said Devinder Sharma, an agriculture policy expert. “But the point is that farmers have started doing their bit even when governments and people at large don’t want to do anything for farmers. Every disaster including air pollution has become an opportunity where machines like happy seeders are being imposed on farmers. It is shoddy planning nothing else. Basically, no one is interested in farmers of Punjab if there is no pollution in Delhi.” The experts also point out that it is not just Delhi that is facing the problem of air pollution alone and instead it is the entire northern India that faces the menace. According to the national air quality bulletin by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the air quality recorded earlier this week was poor across several cities in northern India like Agra, Baghpat, Bhiwadi, Bulandshahr, Muzaffarnagar, Muzaffarpur and Varanasi.
With gradual rise in pollution levels over the past few days in the National Capital Region, Gurugram residents have demanded that a ban on open burning of waste be strictly enforced to prevent situation from getting worse, especially in view of the pandemic. The residents including volunteers of Citizens for Clean Air, a citizens’ collective, have been spotting and reporting waste burning at many open dumping sites as well as at small spots in and around neighbourhoods. They have been actively calling up their respective councillors as well as the administration to put a stop to this harmful practice. The residents said given the pandemic situation and COVID-19 attacking the respiratory system, there was a need to stop local sources of pollution particles from entering their breathing zone. Demanding that the administration and the government prioritise public health and stop waste burning, Ruchika Sethi, a member of Citizens for Clean Air, in a post on the Facebook page of the group wrote: “Despite many protests by the citizen’s collective, Citizens for Clean Air in 2016, 2017 and 2019; a signature campaign signed by 25,000 residents; several representations and meetings with the administration, MP Rao Inderjit Singh, Principal Secretary and a letter to the Chief Minister, none of the solutions for scientific Solid Waste Management have been implemented. Residents are now frustrated and unhappy with the lack of response. They say if the Government can impose such strict measures for the Covid 19 pandemic, surely it can stop a harmful practice like waste burning.” The group, in a tweet, said that challans and FIRs were not the solutions since waste burning was not sporadic, but a rampant practice. It said there was a need for a scientific de-centralised solid waste management mechanism to effectively deal with the menace.
Anumita Roy Chowdhury, Executive Director, Research and Advocacy, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), says there have been some positives. “We have shut down coal-fired power plants, banned old and polluting vehicles and moved to cleaner fuel technologies to a large extent. If we roll out the car-rationing scheme this winter, it won’t be that disruptive as the practice of work from home is more institutionalised this time because of the Covid-19 pandemic.” Delhi Environment Minister Gopal Rai also had a demonstration of a bio-decomposer developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) to convert crop stubble into manure. The Minister said the bio-decomposer, if successful, would help reduce air pollution. Rai said he would discuss the technology, which involved spraying the bio-decomposer on crop stubble, with Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, and a work plan would be developed to use it. The Minister said the Delhi government would provide the bio-decomposer to farmers free of cost. “The cost of spraying the bio-decomposer in fields will be borne by the Delhi government, so that there is no financial burden on farmers and an effective solution to the problem of stubble burning can be developed,” he said. Rai said the Delhi government would talk to the Union Environment Ministry and the governments of neighbouring Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh for coordination in implementing the bio-decomposer technique.
The IARI has received an order from the Uttar Pradesh government to demonstrate the technique on 25,000 hectares of land. Around 10 companies are manufacturing the institute’s bio-decomposer on a large scale. The central government has also devised a scheme under which a subsidy is provided to farmers for using machines to clear crop stubble. The Delhi government has also asked officials to submit specific action plans to deal with high air pollution causes such as stubble burning, road dust, construction activities, and waste burning, besides industrial and vehicular emissions. But a lot more needs to be done. In industrial areas, many small- and medium-sized units are still using dirty fuel. “You need to incentivise industry by saying those using clean fuel can run,” Roy Chowdhury said. Delhi Metro is fine, but the overall public transport sector hasn’t been adequately scaled up. “That's why you see the astounding traffic volume of private vehicles on roads.” Municipal authorities also need to push more for waste segregation, recycle, reuse and composting. “This will help control waste burning. More efforts need to be made to address the problem of construction and demolition waste,” she added. Authorities are providing machines for farmers to clear their fields of crop stubble. The National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) are buying crop stubble from farmers for power generation and bio fuel creation, respectively. “This needs to be scaled up. Farms will need both in-situ and ex-situ measures to add value to straw. Leverage this crisis to build strategic opportunities for green recovery,” Roy Chowdhury said. In short, we need massive clean fuel transition across all sectors, mobility transition (public transport, walking and cycling) to reduce automobile dependence, and a big shift in waste management (segregated collection, reuse, etc) to reduce waste burning and construction and demolition waste. But it is also important to adopt the polluter pays principle to change behaviour. “We need to do creative and strategic thinking. Authorities must ramp up action and identify priority areas for Delhi as well as the National Capital Region (NCR) that includes Uttar Pradesh’s Noida and Ghaziabad and Haryana’s Gurugram and Faridabad,” she pointed out.
In May 2018, a report by the World Health Organisation revealed that India has 14 out of the world’s 15 most polluted cities in terms of the levels of particulate matter, especially Particulate Matter (PM)2.5. Similar reports were published by the WHO in 2014 and 2016 revealed that most of the world’s top polluted cities were in India. In April 2018, the MoEFCC released a draft National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) – a first national-level plan to address the issue at the national level. However, six months down the line the NCAP is yet to be finalised. It was heavily criticised by experts who felt that the plan lacks clear pollution reduction targets, city-wise or region-wise milestones and powers to ensure compliance. But this is not the lone plan. In the past few years, since the time air pollution has been in the limelight, multiple plans have been formed. For instance, in December 2017, a task force led by Nripendra Misra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister of India, released a12-point draft plan to tackle pollution in the Delhi-NCR region. In July 2018, the NITI Aayog released a booklet that suggested a list of 15 action points across a range of industries and sectors to control air pollution. A recent report published by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis(IEEFA) found that Tehri Hydro Development Corporation (THDC)’s proposed Khurja coal power plant will push up the cost of electricity and increase air pollution in Delhi. The report recommended that the Khurja proposal should be re-evaluated in light of severe air pollution levels in Delhi, the real threat of government financing wasted on another expensive stranded asset, increasingly cheaper renewable energy options, and India’s ambitious sustainable energy goals. Tim Buckley, who is the director of energy finance studies at IEEFA, said electricity users, the state and central government and project’s lenders should not be burdened with yet another expensive stranded asset at a time when local residents need cleaner energy options. “Delhi already has the dubious reputation of having the worst air pollution of any city in the world. If the Khurja coal plant is built as planned near Delhi, this will increase the impact on local residents, emergency workers and the local government,” said Buckley in a statement. “The Khurja power plant was feasible when first proposed eight years ago in response to power supply shortages and outages across northern India, but technology has moved on. The Khurja proposal relies on a prohibitively expensive 900 kilometre long rail haul to bring coal to the plant. Additionally, the market price of coal continues to increase globally. The economics of the project look dim. The Khurja proposal must be re-evaluated,” he added. Whether the plans that are being implemented by authorities are effective and there will be some respite from pollution for people of Delhi-NCR region this winter or people are doomed to suffer is something will which will be clear in the coming months.