What the government and the media didn’t say about air pollution in your city

Can we tackle pollution with the same seriousness as black money or corruption?


Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Pollution levels were much higher than what was being displayed on public monitors in the city even as the government issued lukewarm “directives” to tackle the air apocalypse.

On 3 November, in response to the deteriorating situation in the capital and a public outcry against pollution, an emergency meeting was called by Union environment secretary A.N. Jha with the environment secretaries of five states—Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan. Reporters gathered outside the environment ministry that day were told at the end of the meeting that “strong action” had to be taken to combat the air apocalypse that had gripped the National Capital Region centred on Delhi. A slew of measures were announced—ranging from shutting down brick kilns, regulating the use of diesel gensets and ordering Delhi police to conduct a drive against polluting vehicles.

The press went home, the public was satisfied at last something was happening on air pollution. What we didn’t know was these were just advisories. Apart from suggestions, no further action was taken. Worse still, the same directives had been issued in 2015, when the previous environment minister Prakash Javadekar was around. This time too, no specific orders were issued following the meeting; they were simply lofty “guidelines”.

In the next 48 hours, the weather conditions improved, the sun came out and visibility became better. From 900 the air quality index (AQI) was at 500 (that is, mind you, still in the hazardous zone) and once again we forgot about the pollution levels. The media moved on to other stories.

But the truth came out only a week later when the National Green Tribunal was hearing the matter on air pollution in Delhi. On being questioned by the judges on what specific measures had been taken, the officers admitted in the NGT that the slew of measures that had been announced on 3 November in a meeting of the environment secretaries were only directives. The major disclosure made to the Tribunal was that “all the concerned officers conceded that there was hardly any enforcement or proper implementation of law, including orders passed by the NGT to control pollution.” The NGT further noted that “hardly any suggestion came forward from any quarters on how the implementation can be ensured”.

On being pulled up by the NGT, the Central Pollution Control Board revealed data that should have brought north Indian cities to a grinding halt—in some parts of the NCR the PM10 levels were as high as 1,990 g/m3. What this means is that while the air quality monitors in the city were displaying data only up to 500 on the AQI, the PM10 (particulate matter 10) levels were way beyond.

Let’s just take a look at how the AQI is calculated, since it is this monitor on the basis of which our interventions are designed. Think of the AQI as a yardstick that runs from 0 to 500. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution and the greater the health concerns. In India, the index is centred around five chief pollutants—particulate matter with a diameter less than 10 micrometres (PM10), particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5), ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and carbon monoxide (CO). So while 500 forms the top band, what do we do in the case in which the AQI crossed 500? That’s exactly what happened in Delhi this month, according to the Central Pollution Control Board, when PM10, as it admitted in court, had crossed 1990 g/m3.The capital was in the grips of an air apocalypse. While we all knew it was bad, our monitors didn’t tell us how bad.

The response of the government even when the statistics are in place reveal a huge disconnect between science and enforcement. According to environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta, if you look at the statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau, there are zero violations recorded under the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981. This figure in itself shows the seriousness with which we are treating environment violations. Further, when asked in court on what basis the Delhi government decided to shut all schools, the officer stated, “The order came from the education department, we have no idea why.”

We all know that the air quality in Delhi is bad. While the black money apocalypse may have diverted attention from the air apocalypse, the latter hasn’t gone away. Winter and the worst months of pollution are still ahead of us.

Can we tackle pollution with the same seriousness as black money or corruption? Unless interventions are made that are legally enforceable, you can go on converting your 500 and 1,000 rupee notes, but your health is on extremely shaky ground. So go out, and push your government, at the state and centre, to act. You must.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World.

More From Livemint