NEW DELHI : The central government has formed a task force on Delhi’s toxic smog, Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar informed the Rajya Sabha on Thursday, amid demands from members to declare an “environmental emergency" in the National Capital Region (NCR). Air quality in Delhi has actually improved over the last three years, the minister claimed.

“A high-level task force was formed under the principal secretary to the Prime Minister in November, which has been monitoring the measures being taken to combat the air pollution menace in the capital. Regular review meetings are being held," Javadekar said during a call attention notice on air pollution.

The minister said a comprehensive action-graded plan has also been notified for Delhi and the government had adopted a source-based approach to tackle rising pollution levels.

According to a government’s monitoring service, air quality levels touched ‘355—very poor" on Thursday, and is expected to fall further to “severe" level (400-500).

Members also raised concerns over the increasing number of lives lost every year due to the toxic smog, the spike in the number of lung diseases, and the reduced life expectancy in the region.

Samajwadi Party (SP) MP Jaya Bachchan urged the government to declare an environmental emergency and step up measures to combat the menace. Congress MP Ghulam Nabi Azad said the Centre should call a meeting of chief ministers to take collective action. There were suggestions to develop emission inventories, which lists major sources of pollution specific for all cities, and push for urban forests.

Responding to the suggestions, Javadekar said continuous ambient air quality monitoring stations show there has been a general improvement in air quality in the last three years.

“The number of good, satisfactory and moderate days have increased from 106 in 2016 to 159 in 2018, while the bad air quality days have gone down from 246 in 2016, to 206 days in 2018. In Delhi, reduction in PM2.5 levels was 14.8% over 2016," said Javadekar, adding that migrating to BS-VI emission standards will further cut pollution levels.

Partap Singh Bajwa, Congress party MP from Punjab, however, questioned the claims. “How can we say the quality has improved when AQI levels touched a record high of ‘708’ this November. Delhi remains the most polluted capital city in the world, where the AQI levels reach 14 times higher than the recommended safety levels."

Members unanimously agreed that stubble burning was not the only source of pollution, and farmers cannot be solely held responsible for it. “Our farmers are already struggling and debt ridden. Now they are being criminalized and cases are being registered against them. The crop window is short, and they are burning stubble, because we have not been able to give them adequate support technologies," said Congress MP Kumari Selja.

Members of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Aam Aadmi party sparred over the efforts being taken by the Centre and the state to curb pollution. While BJP MP Vijay Goel blamed the Delhi government for putting “Delhi on mask", AAP MP Sanjay Singh criticized the Centre for engaging in a blame game.

Highlighting the Delhi government’s efforts to reduce pollution, Singh said, projecting Delhi as the “gas chamber" was unjust, when 10 other cities, including those in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, have worse pollution levels. “We have increased green cover by 12% and shut down two thermal power plants, banned construction activities and implemented odd-even," he said. “It’s not just Delhi, but 10 other cities are breathing severely polluted air."

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