Dangerous levels of toxic air continue to choke the National Capital Region (NCR), impacting the lives of millions of people. In an interview, Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director (research and advocacy), Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), spoke about how the country’s capital has been struggling to control the crisis that worsens every year and what action is needed to mitigate it. Edited excerpts:
Delhi’s air quality continues to be severe and PM2.5 has reached hazardous levels. What is your assessment of the current situation and its impact on public health?
We face this situation every year during the onset of winter, when weather turns adverse and temperatures drop. The mixing height of air pollution—the height above the surface throughout which a pollutant such as smoke can be dispersed, gets lowered. The wind almost disappears from the city, so whatever pollutants are emitted, they are trapped in the city and pollution rises October onwards. However, this year, we saw much cleaner days from 15 September to 10 October and air quality was moderate to poor. It began to get worse only after 10 October and deteriorated to severe levels after Diwali. What we are witnessing is a deadly combination of unfavourable meteorology and spike in levels of pollutants in the air.
How is Delhi’s poor topography linked to the worsening air quality every winter? What are the tipping points?
Delhi shares its fate with the rest of the Indo-Gangetic Plain. The North-West region is landlocked and in terms of pollution concentration, the northern belt is where all pollution gets built up. This region does not have the inherent geographical advantage that the western, eastern, or southern parts of the country have. There is no sea breeze to disperse the pollutants and we have extremely high levels of pollutants. The adverse meteorology aggravates it.
Why hasn’t Delhi been able to mitigate this crisis despite years of outcry?
It’s been more than 20 years since we have been fighting this battle, which explains how difficult it is to deal with. The first phase of action was more than a decade ago, when Delhi shifted its polluting industries out, introduced the CNG (compressed natural gas) programme and set new emission standards. Then we saw some stabilization initiatives, but we also lost it because our pollution sources have been growing faster than our ability to mitigate.
The current long-term decadal trend starting in 2010 shows that the annual average concentrations of PM2.5 are stabilizing and there is a downward trend. This happened after three coal-powered plants were shut down, the clean fuel programme in the transport and industrial sector was expanded and dirty fuels were phased out. The emission standards have improved. All this helped in bending the pollution curve. However, the real challenge is that, even after bending the pollution curve, Delhi still has to reduce its pollution by another 65% to meet the clean air standards. Are we ready to bring down that additional 65% cut? That is the critical question.
What can we do to mitigate this crisis?
There are two strategies. First, the Comprehensive Action Plan, which has already being notified and adopted in Delhi. It is meant for systemic long-term changes in the transport and industrial sector, as well as the waste sector, across NCR. There is need for massive transition to clean energy in the power sector and massive mobility transition because the heavy motorization taking place has already made vehicles 40% of the problem. We need to scale up public transport strategies.
Second, we need to deal with the waste problem. Open burning of municipal solid waste and industrial waste is fouling up the air. We have the plan and it’s no rocket science. What is needed is strict enforcement. The need is to build institutional capacity for implementation and enforcement and have the necessary legal back-up for compliance and strong deterrence. We need to fix our air quality governance issues. That is one big change we are looking at.
The push for public transport has long been highlighted as a potential solution. However, we are far from implementing it on the ground. What can be done?
We only talk in terms of whether we have adequate buses, or adequate Metro services. Of course, there is a huge deficit. However, to see a change, we have to implement an integrated framework where it’s not just about bringing a bus to the city, but also ensuring that it is reliable, comfortable and at the doorstep. Think in terms of service. Imagine the number of interchanges required if one takes public transport to reach one’s destination. The moment we do that, we end up paying more. This is called the interchange penalty, which increases the transport cost. The current public transport system is disintegrated. We need to integrate it physically and through fare integration, so that it provides last mile connectivity but without additional cost. The bus system is supposed to be the spine of the public transport system, but it has dwindled over the years. Today if we need 12,000 buses in the city, we have around 5,000. Simultaneously, we also require restraint measures . We need to stop giving hidden subsidies to vehicles with free parking, minimal charges of using the roads and not recovering the cost of congestion from them. The subsidy given to the personal vehicle user makes personal transport comparatively more affordable than public transport. It is in conflict. Recently, Delhi adopted parking rules, which is asking for parking management as a demand management tool. So, while you are meeting the requirement of parking, you have to reduce the demand of parking.
The odd-even scheme kicks in on Monday. Do you think such temporary measures can bring down the vehicular pollution that is choking Delhi?
Vehicles contribute 40% of the total pollution load in the city. We cannot ignore it if we want clean air. People should not confuse between long-term systemic reforms and temporary emergency measures. We have not been able to implement those long-term reforms at the scale and stringency that we need them, so during winter when weather turns adverse, we enter a crisis, so emergency measures are needed. The wind will blow when it has to, but at least we should not add fuel to the fire. Temporary measures are not just odd-even, but stopping diesel generator sets, coal industries, hot mix plants and construction activities. If we can take 50% of the vehicles off the road with odd-even, why not? Countries, such as Paris clamp down with emergency action, the moment pollution levels breach the standard for clean air. The basic principle is, if the situation is bad enough already, let’s not add more to it.
Pollution in Delhi has become a health emergency. Why isn’t adequate attention paid to the impact of smog on public health?
Globally, the reason why emergency action is taken is to try and reduce the personal exposure of people as much as one can. Clearly, what will be needed is that people are sensitized about the kind of protection that they can adopt at their level. Health advisories that goes out say do not do heavy exercise, avoid exposure. It is certainly a huge concern. Hospital admissions have been increasing.