As Delhi Chokes, Focus on Speedy Execution of Action Plan to Combat Pollution

While the Supreme Court has approved the draft of the comprehensive action plan to tackle “severe plus” levels of air pollution in Delhi NCR, it is yet to be finalised.

Air quality in Delhi had begun to sharply dip from moderate to a poor category in the first week of October. Credit: PTI

Air quality in Delhi had begun to sharply dip from moderate to a poor category in the first week of October. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: With the air quality in Delhi and surrounding areas reaching “emergency” or hazardous level in recent days, triggering several measures including closure of schools as part of the graded response action plan (GRAP) devised to combat air pollution, the focus has now shifted to the final approval of the comprehensive action plan (CAP).

The CAP lays down the responsibilities of the state governments and the Centre to combat pollution all year around.

The Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority (EPCA) had submitted the plan to the Supreme Court, which has approved the draft and is due to hear the matter on November 17. The apex court had about ten days ago also asked the environment ministry to notify the plan.

With the air quality in the National Capital Region deteriorating sharply, environmental activists want the comprehensive action plan to be enforced at the earliest so that long-term solutions to this perennial problem of high pollution during the winter months can be devised.

Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director at the Centre for Science and Environment said the air pollution being witnessed in Delhi at the moment is basically a northern Indian phenomenon as the entire region gets affected by this winter inversion. “This is a landlocked region, you do not have a coast, you do not get the sea breeze. During winter additionally what happens is the inversion. When the temperature dips, the wind becomes extremely calm and the height to which the wind rises also comes down. As a result what happens is that the air gets trapped very close to the ground level. When the wind also stops, you have the situation that whatever pollution you have in the city gets trapped and builds up. So this is something very typical of winter and something we know will always happen.”

In such a scenario, she said, the best way forward is to develop long-term solutions to the problem. “The extent to which the pollution level will go will depend on what you have done to control pollution. So if the pollution levels are high then you are going to see this huge trapping. So there is all the more reason to control pollution and have much better preparedness before the winter sets in.”

Supreme Court showed the way last year with GRAP

Roychowdhury said the apex court had taken cognisance of the high air pollution levels and stirred the governments into action. “It had demanded that Delhi needed to have a graded response action plan. It said depending on the air quality level you should have some kind of a response level to respond immediately. Now that plan is coming into force.”

But even more important than the emergency measures, the environmental expert said, was the emphasis the court has laid on developing long-term solutions. “It has also asked for a comprehensive action plan whose purpose is that you have to identify all the key sources of pollution and what are the short, medium and long-term solutions. This is an approach which is more systemic in nature and these plans would be rolled out for more sustained gains in air quality.”

The activist said the draft of CAP has already been prepared but it has not been finalised and notified even though the court recently approved of it. “This has been prepared by the EPCA which had been directed by the court to prepare it. The EPCA had prepared it in consultation with the departments and the ministries.”

Stating that both the actions need to run together, Roychowdhury said: “On the one side there has to be an emergency response but simultaneously there has to be a comprehensive plan.”

“Not a single new bus purchase in three years”

She, however, lamented that all the aspects of these plans have not been addressed. “So while the graded response mechanism kicked in today asking for the intensification of the public transport system, it is unlikely to have a major impact because the number of public transport buses has not been increased by the Delhi government over the last three years.” In fact, a report on two years of the Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi had noted how the bus fleet had reduced by over 35% in six years. “Delhi Transport Corporation, which used to operate 6,204 buses in 2010-11, is operating only 4,020 buses due to which ridership has also reduced considerably,” it had noted, adding that Delhi actually needed over 10,000 public transport buses.

Roychowdhury said due to lack of importance to the public vehicles, the emergency response today would also be limited in its score because the public transport system is so limited. “But for the Metro, the bus system has been deteriorating day by day. Over the last three years, not a single new bus has been purchased by Delhi government and the bus ridership has consequently been going down. These are part of a systemic response. So if you are not investing in public transport and last mile connectivity even the emergency response would remain limited in its scope.”

The ultimate solution would come from these longer-term measures, she added.

Resistance to change 

Roychowdhury said the governments also need to work towards reducing the resistance to change for the better. “The industries in and around Delhi burn dangerous furnace oil and the Supreme Court has asked the governments to impose curbs on its use. The governments know what they need to know, but we find that for each decision there is so much of resistance that builds up, there is so much of pushback, that the action gets delayed and things do not happen on time. So clearly now we need very concerted action.”

“What no one is focusing on is how to diffuse this resistance to the implementation. So when you are trying to ban the fuels that the industries use, they turn around and say don’t, when you try and raise parking charges, the car owners protest and when you try and curb stubble burning, the farmers go up in arms. So when it comes to biting the bullet, things take a back seat. As a result, we are losing so much of time,” she explained giving reasons for why the governments do not act.

Also read: Beyond Fireworks in Delhi and on Twitter, India’s Stance on Air Pollution Deaths Is Hazardously Hazy

Roychowdhury, however, added that the courts are seized of the matter and plans are being drawn. “As part of the whole government implementation strategy, the government will have to push for implementation. Everything is now known and written on paper. All the governments need to do is be disciplined and keen to pursue the issue. The Centre is responsible for emissions and other related issues but when it comes to improving bus system, road dust management, waste burning or parking policy, all of it is with the state governments.”

A protest against the high level of air pollution at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

A protest against the high level of air pollution at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

Here, she said, the CAP draft provides for a monitoring strategy. “The Supreme Court will next hear the matter on November 17. It has already approved of the plan, only a few issues pertaining to the automotive industry were there on which some clarifications have been sought and hopefully we would soon have an action plan in place.”

No real emergency response plan

Meanwhile, Aishwarya Sudhir, a Bangalore based independent researcher, has while sharing the data on air pollution in Delhi, noted that the “crisis” being witnessed was a result of “no real emergency response plan”.

Sudhir said that while over the last three days, Delhi’s air quality has been hazardous with the air quality index (AQI) reading above 400 and the government and the Indian Medical Association declaring a “state of public health emergency”, the GRAP has clearly failed to make any difference to the severe pollution levels being witnessed by the citizens of Delhi.

She said in the last few days, the Central Pollution Control Board has set up a control room for implementing GRAP but “with no clear way forward”.

Sudhir has pointed out that in the last 30 days, as per the response action plan, Delhi should have received the “orange alert” for “poor air quality” nine times; and “red alert” for very poor to severe air quality as many as 21 times. At present, she said, the city was in the “emergency alert” or “hazardous air quality” zone.

Stating that GRAP was prepared with the sole purpose to address and implement the required actions to maintain safe pollution levels across the national capital, the council said as per the Supreme Court’s order in December 2016, the Central Pollution Control Board had submitted this plan to “curb and control the air pollution crisis choking the region.”

Noting that while the environment ministry had notified the action plan for implementation on January 12, the Council said it had only come into effect on October 18.

No action despite deterioration in air quality

In this regard, the Council added that the air quality in Delhi had begun to sharply dip from moderate to a poor category in the first week of October and continued to plunge into poor, very poor and severe categories before reaching the emergency situation.

The action needed to be taken at all these levels has been specified under GRAP but was apparently not initiated.

The reports submitted by the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi and Kanpur had also clearly cited the need to address, road dust, vehicular emissions, crop burning and emissions from coal plants in the NCR states. The GRAP also has a set of measures with each category of alerts and provides for action ranging from penalising the polluting car owners to the capping of emissions from power plants across Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. However, none of it appears to have taken place.

The Council has also noted that “there is little or no evidence of a mitigation plan for addressing crop fires across the NCR states, the evidence is clearly attributing a 25% rise in the pollution levels to crop fires, yet there’s no mention of addressing these issues under the classified alert system given in GRAP.”