Another winter, another season with an air emergency. 2021 has been depressingly familiar in the National Capital Region, lungs and air choked with smoke, and marked by the usual administrative procrastination that has invited attention from the courts. This judicial intervention in turn has led to drastic curbs such as halting construction, banning trucks carrying non-essential supplies into Delhi and the closing of schools and educational institutions among other measures.
These temporary measures, experts say, however, are meant to prevent any further build-up in the air pollution levels and only buy time for the wind to pick up. That is why these emergency steps cannot become the mainstay of Delhi-NCR’s air pollution mitigation strategy. Neither can it be left to an “act of God,” as the Supreme Court cautioned on November 24, asking the Union government to work out a scientific model based on seasons and wind conditions and to take preemptive steps to control pollution spikes.
Such harsh measures also come at considerable economic and social costs that the majority of the population, barely recovering from the impact of the Covid-induced lockdowns, can ill-afford.
As the air quality improved marginally last week, the Supreme Court on December 10 revised its earlier order that banned construction activities in Delhi permitting the Commission for Air Quality Management to review this and the latter’s order on the closure of schools and colleges (allowing only online classes), thermal plants in NCR and a ban on the movement of trucks, except those carrying essential supplies, into Delhi.
While passing that order, the SC bench observed, “All the governments, Centre or states, should have taken strict steps before our shouting. We never had to pass these orders. Now, if we are going to be involved in each and everything, this will never end.”
Beyond emergency measures
Fundamentally, air pollution cannot be brushed off as a seasonal woe where the union and state governments only begin to react after the winter smog starts setting in, and more often than not, when the courts intervene. One lesson the recurring pollution crisis has repeatedly taught us is that the fight against air pollution requires long-term, systemic changes, which need the involvement of all stakeholders across territorial state boundaries round the year.
Delhi-NCR, for one, does not need to go back to the drawing board to frame yet another action plan. Anumita Roy Chowdhury, the executive director at the Centre for Science and Environment, pointed out that the Comprehensive Action Plan (CAP) for Delhi and NCR was notified in 2018 under the Environment Protection Act for prevention, control and mitigation of air pollution in the region, with the tasks envisaged for each agency under specific timelines.
The full implementation of CAP, she said, should cut the quantum of pollution in the NCR region on a long-term basis, while also reducing the need to enforce emergency measures provisioned in the Supreme Court-approved Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) for Delhi-NCR, often drastic in nature.
Many of these temporary measures listed out in GRAP, notified in 2017, are in any case can’t be fully enforced. For example, when pollution levels peak, the government is meant to deploy extra buses but thanks to the perennial shortage of these public vehicles, that is nearly always impossible.
Similarly, GRAP calls for an increase in the parking fee by three to four times when pollution levels spike to “very poor”. But as the key provision of hiking the rates in Delhi’s parking policy remain unimplemented, there’s no headway on this front as well.
Prolonged bans on construction activities during the winter are now a routine feature. But what use are these tools-down periods when uncovered building materials and excavated soil dumps keep blowing in the wind? Delhi and NCR towns are a perpetual construction project where more roads, flyovers, pavements, metro lines, shopping malls, offices and houses are being erected. While our cities love to build, they rarely follow site management protocols to keep dust pollution under check.
“These deficiencies can be addressed if we go sector by sector to see whether strategies and processes are in place, whether system changes have happened, whether we have adequate resources and funding for these strategies and whether we have built enough institutional capacities for implementation. This is the mapping we need not just for Delhi but all of NCR because no one city in the region can solve the problem. We need a regional approach,” said Roy Chowdhury.
A detailed blueprint
CAP provisions for short-term priority action to medium and long-term measures to counter all major causes of pollution identified in the source apportionment studies.
To cut vehicular emissions, for example, it mandates the expansion of Compressed Natural Gas network across NCR; augmenting bus strength to at least 10,000; pedestrianisation of commercial areas that have good transport connectivity, enforcement of bus lanes; BRT/LRTS connectivity; an e-mobility push for three-wheelers; integration of bus and metro services with non-motorised transport; improvement in walking and cycling infrastructure and parking pricing and penalties.
Similarly, for better traffic management, CAP prescribes the introduction of an early alarm system during traffic congestion for the benefit of commuters and flexible timings to reduce rush during peak hours among other measures.
While Delhi has shut down the Badarpur thermal power station, CAP asks for progressively shutting the older, more polluting thermal plants in NCR as well and switching to cleaner natural gas. It asks for the banning of dirty industrial fuels across NCR. It also mandates the strict enforcement of the ban on burning of agriculture waste and crop residues in Punjab and Haryana and an increased subsidy for the purchase of equipment that eliminates the need for burning stubble.
To reduce road dust, CAP calls for repair and building of pavements and vacuum-cleaning of streets across NCR, while also mandating adequate vegetative buffers and paving of roads, building water fountains at major traffic intersections, wherever feasible, and greening of open areas.
For controlling construction dust, it provisions for clean site management, enhancing penalties for violations, mandatory disposal of debris at designated sites and promotion of recycling of building material.
The CAP was framed in 2018. While some of its provisions such as the closure of the Badarpur thermal plant, banning of polluting fuels in Delhi industries and introducing the peripheral expressway have been implemented, a lot on the to-do list remains pending. Appreciating the merits of the plan, officials involved in pollution mitigation said NCR as a whole could benefit if coordination meetings were held regularly, there was accountability on timelines and attention was paid to building capacity.
Roy Chowdhury stressed the need to continuously update the plan, which was framed in 2018, for more dynamic action. “While one has to ensure that each and every strategy in CAP is put into practice, the plan must also respond to new challenges and the gaps that exist in implementation,” she said.
Synergise urban plans
The subject of air quality can’t be viewed in isolation, said Tanushree Ganguly, programme lead at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW). “This is an issue, which has to be a sub-set of every developmental aspect of the country, whether it is mobility or energy transition, waste management or even building smart cities,” she said.
Ganguly gives examples of the Swachh Bharat Mission, waste management rules, Smart Cities Mission, Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) and Delhi’s own electric vehicle policy, which can be leveraged to yield air quality benefits, but only if they are synergised. Systemic changes such as these can also reduce the burden of enforcement.
If implemented effectively, the Swachh Bharat Mission and waste management rules, with a focus on efficient segregation, collection and processing of garbage, could eliminate the need to burn trash otherwise littered on the streets. Recycling and composting could cut the waste transported to the overflowing, simmering, methane-laden landfills that make the air foul. AMRUT could also be leveraged for greening open spaces, creating walking and cycling infrastructure which are efficient methods of air pollution mitigation.
Enforcement, monitoring, evaluation
Effective implementation of any air quality management plan requires a strong enforcement mechanism. But without unwavering administrative and political will, even the most empowered enforcement machinery cannot ensure compliance.
The Commission for Air Quality Management in NCR and adjoining areas, which was set up in 2020 to replace the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority, has a clear mandate to ensure “better coordination, research, identification and resolution of problems surrounding the air quality index,” and also provide “the mechanism and the means” to implement this mandate in the National Clean Air Programme. But in 2021, it was only coaxed into action in November when pollution levels peaked.
Underlining the need for more proactive functioning by the CAQM, Ganguly said, “The commission is not just a body for issuing emergency directives. It has exclusive jurisdiction over air quality management in Delhi and adjoining areas and can play a critical role in monitoring and evaluating the required action throughout the year.”
While the states and agencies keep passing the buck, the CAQM, with its overarching authority, can extract action by bringing all stakeholders on the same page. Action on improving air quality, after all, takes care of critical challenges of civic governance while making cities sustainable and resilient. And ensures the most fundamental right of all. The right to breathe.