Can Delhi get out of this gas chamber?

Published: March 21, 2017 - 13:44

As India’s capital figures on yet another list of the world’s most polluted cities, experts offer solutions
Shibu Kumar Tripathi Delhi

A recent report published in The Lancet, a noted medical journal, set alarm bells ringing among the scientific community in India as it pronounced Patna and Delhi to be among the worst polluted cities in the world. The report also hurled another staggering statistic at public health professionals: more than a million people die in India every year due to respiratory diseases caused by air pollution. Though the report paints a grim picture of the national capital, some experts beg to differ. According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), there has been a surprising improvement in Delhi’s air quality in the first couple of months of 2017 compared to last year. 

Dismissing the arbitrary methods of data extrapolation used by Western agencies, the CPCB denied the claims of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) about the rising levels of sulphur in the air and The Lancet’s remarks on Delhi being one of the most polluted cities in the world. Dr D Saha, head of the air laboratory wing of the CPCB, told Hardnews, “There is no clarity over the methods used by these agencies to estimate the value of pollutants in Delhi’s air. In our studies, we have found that the conditions have improved in 2017, air quality has improved from ‘severe’ to ‘very poor’ level.” However, Delhi has been battling a continuous surge in pollution for more than a decade. The factors causing this include an explosive spurt in motorisation, rapid construction activities, lack of a paratransit system, piling up of landfills, an overt dependence on private vehicles, unregulated emission and stubble burning. 

The Supreme Court was so alarmed at the rising pollution levels in Delhi that it had to take suo-moto cognisance of the matter. In a scathing indictment of the state of affairs, the court labelled the city as a veritable “gas chamber”. It directed the CPCB, the Delhi government, the Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA), and the state governments of Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Rajasthan to formulate a comprehensive action plan—notified in January this year—to curb pollution in the capital and neighbouring regions.

The Supreme Court order was another case of the judiciary having to intervene due to the inertia of the state apparatus. The last major intervention came in 1998 when the courts forced public transportation in the capital to switch to CNG. Polash Mukherjee of CSE acknowledged, “The judiciary has played a much bigger role this time by taking cognisance of the worsening environmental situation. The intervention has now led to the formation of GRAP (Graded Responsibility Action Plan) which is being implemented by the EPCA in coordination with different states around the NCR.” 

Government-led interventions in the capital have, however, been far less effective. Grappling with the declining quality of air, the Sahib Singh Verma government had decided to relocate environmentally polluting industries to the outskirts of the city. While a large chunk of industries moved out, many are still operating illegally to this day within the confines of residential areas. The SC-mandated EPCA has told the Delhi government that roughly 70,000 such industries are operating in residential areas. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has now directed the CPCB, Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) and North Delhi Municipal Corporation to inspect areas in north-west Delhi after a plea claimed that many industrial units were running without permission, contributing to air pollution. At the time this story was filed, a two-week time-frame had been given to the body to submit the findings of its inspection. 

An SC bench headed by Justice MB Lokur has also asked the Union government to ban the usage of furnace oil and petcoke in industries within four weeks. Reportedly, furnace oil which has a high sulphur content--between 15,000 to 20,000 parts per million (ppm)--is being used extensively by some established industries in Delhi. “That level of sulphur is colossal when compared to diesel which has around 50 ppm of sulphur content. And despite advanced engines in vehicles, it still manages to pollute the environment,” said Dr Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director, CSE. 

Delhi, spread over 900 sq km and with two satellite centres in Noida and Gurgaon, is one of the cities worst affected by urbanisation and rapid population growth. In 2007, the population of the NCR was estimated at 16 million and is expected to reach 22.5 million by 2025. Increase in population means requirement for larger settlement areas which directly leads to uncontrolled construction activities across the city. Experts believe that dust emerging from construction activities amounts to nearly 56 percent of pollutants in Delhi’s air. These dust particles, when mixed with pollutants emanating from vehicular exhausts, bind with air, turning it toxic. Dr Sai Kiran Chaudhary, head of the Department of Pulmonology at the Delhi Heart and Lung Institute, says, “If an outsider who has lived in air which was much cleaner than Delhi’s lives here for more than two or three years, his life expectancy is likely to decrease by five years.” In the past couple of years, there has been an increase in the number of people suffering from advanced lung disorder who have also developed asthmatic symptoms and have a poor respiratory system, while the number of patients complaining about burning sensation in the eyes has also risen, said doctors in Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital. 

Delhi experienced one of its worst winters, a deadly smog-filled one, in 2016 as post-Diwali, a thick haze engulfed the city. The air quality was ‘severe’ and the level of Suspended Particulate Matter (SPM) 2.5 crossed the 900 mark, nearly 15 times above the normal level. The Delhi government closed its Badarpur thermal power plant and all construction activities were banned by the NGT for 15 days. While the SC imposed an environmental cess in addition to the hefty toll tax on trucks entering Delhi, the then Lieutenant-Governor (LG) Najeeb Jung banned the entry of trucks into Delhi before 12 midnight till January 31, 2017. Newly appointed LG Anil Baijal relaxed the entry time for trucks to 11 pm from February. 

The geographic location of Delhi has also contributed in exacerbating the situation. The city, which receives high winds blowing from the sandy terrain of Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan from the northwest in mid-October and November, recorded low wind speed. This did not allow dust to reach the mixing height—height above the surface at which air pollutants are diluted—which increased the concentration of particulate matter in the air. 

Responding to a question in Parliament, Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change Anil Madhav Dave said, “The particulate matter concentration was high between November 2016 and January 2017 because of prevailing meteorological conditions like calm weather, low temperature, very low wind speed and reduced mixing height, thereby preventing dispersion of pollutants and leading to their accumulation.” Delhi recorded an average PM 10 volume of 260 ug/m3 in 2016 which was over four times the safe level, while in the case of gaseous pollutants like nitrous oxide (NO2), it was 60 ug/m3, higher than the annual standard of 40 ug/m3. 

A major issue related to Delhi’s pollution is the uninterrupted emission of fly ash from thermal plants operational in the city. Delhi has two power plants, one each in Badarpur and Rajghat, which release fly ash—a powdery component released on burning of coal which when inhaled affects the immune system, increasing the risk of heart and lung diseases. An IIT Kanpur report which pointed to the gravity of the situation and mounting pressure from environmental agencies forced the closure of the Badarpur plant. Emission of particulate matter from four out of the five units of the plant failed to meet the permissible limits of 150 mg/Nm3. In a meeting chaired by Delhi’s environment minister, Imran Hussain, the closure of the five units of the thermal power plant was extended till further orders in the early week of February. While the 40-year-old Badarpur plant had exceeded its expected lifetime, the Rajghat thermal plant that is also under the control of the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) is likely to be converted into a waste-to-energy unit which can process 4,000 MTD of solid waste daily, said senior officials in the Department of Environment. “The government needs to shut down these thermal plants and shift from coal-based energy source to a clean and renewable form of energy. Following the closure of the Badarpur plant this winter, the levels of pollution have gone down significantly compared to last year,” said Chowdhury. 

While regular release of fly ash poses harsh threats to healthy living, black carbon released from brick kilns further aggravates the problem. Though the Delhi government has banned brick kilns from operating within its borders, it is a flourishing business in the bordering areas of Dadri, Baraut, Muradnagar and other places in Uttar Pradesh. 

The government pinned the blame for the deteriorating situation in the national capital on farmers burning stubble in the neighbouring states of Haryana, Punjab and UP. 

Motorisation has increased rampantly in Delhi over the years. Figures released by CSE indicate that two lakh cars were added to the roads of Delhi in 2015-16, marking a 20 percent rise in purchase of new cars since 2014-15. The popularity of private cab sharing platforms like Ola and Uber also bolstered the sale of vehicles. During the first phase of the Odd-Even scheme, a study by the School of Planning and Architecture showed that the share of private vehicles will go up by nearly 50 percent. Meanwhile, data from Delhi’s transport department pointed out that over 900 vehicles were registered every day at the regional transport offices of which 32 were private cabs. A study conducted by the CPCB revealed that organic carbon generated from vehicles running on petrol engines contributes 24 percent of PM 2.5, while black carbon emitted from diesel-powered vehicles makes for 17 percent of PM 2.5, accounting for 41 percent of pollutants contributed by vehicular activities. 

Prior to the winter smog, the Delhi government had successfully implemented two phases of the car rationing policy which focused on reducing the quantity of vehicular exhaust being added to the environment, alongside minimising traffic congestion. Dr Saha, while acknowledging the benefits of the Odd-Even policy, said, “The scheme proved to be helpful in Delhi which is extremely cramped in terms of traffic and roads. However, people have no discipline. Instead of following the rules, people bypassed it by purchasing new cars with alternative numbers. One thing needs to be very clear, human beings contribute to the degradation of air much more than any other factor.” 

“The lack of a paratransit system in Delhi has led to overdependence on private vehicles which is increasing every year. The government needs to shift to cleaner sources of fuel and develop new avenues of a paratransit system,” noted Anumita. The Delhi government, which has decided to issue just 10,000 permits to autos this year, is also holding discussions on plans to rationalise bus routes. The Odd-Even scheme is likely to be rolled out again this year, though any details about its third phase is yet to be released. 

While the Delhi government takes leaping steps, the Haryana government is planning to instal smog-free towers in Gurgaon and Faridabad. The idea seems to be drawn from Beijing which introduced similar air purifiers last October. The Haryana government is reportedly in talks with a Dutch company to set up these towers which are effective within a radius of 300 metres to 7 km. Government officials have hinted that there is an aggressive push towards tech-enabled pollution-free environs in the state with focus on satellite towns. 

Denying reports of surging pollution levels, Shambhavi Shukla, a research associate at CSE, said that the pollution level has gone down in 2017 due to increase in wind speed and better meteorological conditions post-December. 

In spite of positive trends in air quality, the biggest challenge for the city will now be to continue progressing along the same track which seems an uphill task. As summer approaches, the demand for power will gradually swell, forcing the government to rethink its decision to shut down all units of the Badarpur thermal power plant. The graded action plan, if not implemented in time, can collude with the changing meteorological scenarios and lead to a return of the 2016 winter-like conditions. The Delhi government, which is working on an ad-hoc policy, needs to formulate the much-needed transport policy so as to regulate the registration of vehicles for both private and commercial usage. The government needs to rework its plans to design congested roads in Delhi so as to create space for pedestrians, bicycles and other paratransit systems. 

Failure to act immediately to contain the damage caused to air quality in Delhi may lead to the life-threatening environment from which the city recently emerged.

As India’s capital figures on yet another list of the world’s most polluted cities, experts offer solutions
Shibu Kumar Tripathi Delhi

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