15 Dec 2020
Rethinking air pollution in India
With AQI levels in New Delhi rising as high as 874 and 999 in Noida, the NCR seems to be enveloped by a blanket of smog and dust. The area is reporting the highest levels since last November and they do not seem to be going down as Diwali draws near. This time of the […]

With AQI levels in New Delhi rising as high as 874 and 999 in Noida, the NCR seems to be enveloped by a blanket of smog and dust. The area is reporting the highest levels since last November and they do not seem to be going down as Diwali draws near.

This time of the year, the country and mainly the NCR faces a climb in AQI levels due to stubble burning and bursting of crackers on popular festivals. Each year they come out with a set of policies to lower AQI levels at these times, This year, the government has imposed a ban on crackers this Diwali again, particularly including green crackers too which is a step up from the ban they had imposed last year. At around the same time, they have also recently set up a committee to tackle the issues of air pollution caused by stubble burning that have threatened the health and safety of Delhi’s citizens for years.

Under an ordinance released by the Ministry of Law and Justice on 29th October, the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) has been dissolved and replaced by a commission comprising of 20 members. It is called The Commission for Air Quality Management In National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas.

This isn’t just a sudden surge of environmentalism from the centre or any state governments during the period that causes the most pollution each year. Throughout these past two years the government has been trying to emphasise the need for climate action by passing various policies. However these policies are not only extremely few, but also extremely ineffective, incremental or unregulated. 

The government has also recently released 2,200 crores to 15 states to improve air quality measures in million-plus cities. The instructions as to the cause for which the money was to be used as well as the chain of control over the money were given specifically. However, the states were not given any climate plans or measures that they should use this money for.

While the Finance commission has said that it aims to draft a plan with the states that have received this money and that it will also give further grants based on performance, it has left out Delhi on the basis of it being a union territory rather than a state. The government’s decision to leave out the most polluted city (region) in the entire world; where the average AQI levels are over 100 and air quality remains in the “very poor” category for months on end, has been criticised by many.

A Delhi government spokesperson said, “Centre’s decision to not give any funds to Delhi from ₹2,200 Cr… shows its pettiness and complete lack of political will when it comes to the problem of pollution in Delhi. Pollution is a health emergency for the entire of North India and it knows no boundaries.”

India’s standards for what counts as “moderately polluted” air quality (roughly 101 to 200 micrograms per cubic meter) are so low that countries like Switzerland have declared climate emergencies at these levels. Cities in India have average AQI levels in the lower 100’s which should really highlight the need for a climate plan and also raise the question- “Why has the problem persisted for so long?” At times and in situations like these, it is important to be aware of the flaws in our system and governance that have proved ineffective against this issue and that need to be dealt with as we go forward.

Well firstly, we really need to address the inefficiency of incremental policies. The global sea level has risen by about 8 inches since1880. It is projected to rise another 1 to 8 feet by 2100. This is the result of added water from melting land ice and the expansion of seawater as it warms. Climate scientists predict that the Arctic Ocean is expected to become essentially ice free in summer before mid-century.

An analysis in 2017 predicting heat wave patterns and their effects expect Delhi to become  uninhabitable by 2100. Simply put, we don’t have the time for gradual policies. Continuing to work through gradual, incremental changes through ‘innovation-as-usual’ is not a sufficient response to climate emergency. We need an innovation model capable of triggering a more fundamental transformation of economic, social and financial systems. Something much like the “Green Deals” proposed by the United States, the European Commission, and the United Nations

Politicians have been escaping their responsibility to take climate action under the excuse of “wanting business and industry to flourish” for decades. Rather than working on a plan that would allow business to boom along with saving our environment, they treat the two as contradictory things. In their attempts to gain voters, most parties in India have not only shied away from mentioning this issue, they do not need to address it in their manifestos as it is not even a top concern or priority of the voter base in India. India remains one of the only major countries that still does not have an influential “Green” Party, despite contributing to a large chunk of global Carbon and greenhouse gas emissions.

The majority of the country is unaware and unconcerned with the issue of climate change. As a result of which, they feel like the pollution limits of many industries have been tightened enough, and thus remain in an illusion of progress. However, the truth of the situation is that they are still lax when compared to global standards, the only exception being the cement industry in India which matches international levels. Sectors like textile, pulp and paper and thermal power are still far behind.  For some industries in India, like thermal power, pollution control norms were not updated for a decade. While the government is to blame for the lack of regulation and low norms (for a country with the most polluted city in the world), some blame also lies with the industries that show no efforts to become greener.

A big example of ineffective and misadministered green policies is visible in the Delhi government’s Tree Transplantation policy.

The failures of these policies and of the government to bring down AQI levels make it no longer easy for us to ignore the flaws in our system that allow this problem to persist, that too in the capital of our country. Our government has done just enough to stay in power but not nearly enough to prevent the worst that climate change has in store for us. Their simplistic and incremental solutions have not just been inadequate but misadministered, unregulated and ineffective. 

At the forefront we have the “teeth-less” enforcement by the government. The government of India is often criticised for being involved in corrupt activities as well as supporting certain industries and businesses by allowing them to not abide with the pollution norms. An example of this is the proposed iron ore extraction project of POSCO, a South Korean company, in the state of Odisha in India (formerly known as Orissa).

The state government had signed a memorandum of understanding in 2005 with POSCO permitting the company to extract up to 600 million tonnes of iron ore over the next 30 years in Odisha. However, the local residents of the villages at and surrounding the proposed project site claimed that the construction would result in a loss of livelihood of the local populace. It threatened the livelihood of thousands of villagers as the government occupied their lands to set up the steel plant. Forest areas full of betel vines, that provided the villagers with their livelihoods, were cleared. After an entire legal issue and gaining a large amount of land, Posco was allowed to set up their plant. However, due to errors in planning, not even a brick was laid and all that the project achieved was the destruction of the livelihoods of an entire village. 

Sometimes it is just the laziness of the businesses as well as non stringent laws that lead to air pollution. As of late 2018, over 2,080 brick kilns in NCR and many more in the surrounding states were supposed to become greener or be shut down and filled in. However, 74% percent of these did not reach the goal and since then, they are either still functioning or lay abandoned on land that could be cleared and used for cultivation, planting forest cover or even to accommodate the transplanted trees under the Tree Transplantation policy.

The government was also publicly criticised over the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) 2020. This year’s EIA has reduced a significant amount of public consultation by removing several subjects from its purview. One of the main causes of concern is that the draft has exempted almost 40 different projects such as clay and sand extraction or digging wells or foundations of buildings, solar thermal power plants and common effluent treatment plants are exempted from prior EC (with approval of expert committees) or prior EP (without the approval of expert committees). Several projects such as all B2 projects, irrigation, production of halogens, chemical fertilisers, acids manufacturing, biomedical waste treatment facilities, building construction and area development, elevated roads and flyovers, highways or expressways are  also exempted from public consultation.

It also allows for post-facto approval of projects wherein a project can start before it has approval to start setting up in a certain area and all environmental damage it causes in this time would just get waived off. In short, the new draft rules seem to favour the interests of the project proponent by whittling down public consultations, accepting flawed and faulty EIA reports resulting from external influences, and ignoring the non-renewable nature of resources. 

Even otherwise, India has seen a failure of the administrative machinery in adequately protecting our environment. The Government of India had made an out of court settlement on behalf of the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy, for an amount that was widely criticised as being inadequate by many. The decades subsequent to the infamous Bhopal gas tragedy saw the Supreme Court of India as the sole champion of the cause of environmental protection, with public interest litigation cases being entertained from any individual citizen.

Thus, it appears that the lack of an adequate legislative, regulatory and administrative framework has propelled the judiciary into the role of India’s environmental protector at large. Legally, the government has to abide by over dozens of acts in our constitutions that all aspire to create a cleaner and safer environment. However, due to the irresponsibility of the government and misplaced priorities, it falls on the judiciary to get us out of all of this mess we’re in. 

Now to address the elephant in the room, one of the biggest contributors to air pollution in Delhi, especially this time of the year- Stubble burning. Although it happens for a short period of time every year, it is one of the biggest causes of pollution around this time. The 15-20 million tonnes of paddy stubble burnt in Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh in just 60 days, emits PM2.5 that is 4-5 times the annual PM2.5 emissions from all vehicles plying on Delhi roads. 

Last year, the government had imposed a ban on stubble burning, imposing a fine of ₹ 1 lakh on people who didn’t follow it. Despite the law, the states of Punjab and Haryana have continued to burn their stubble, this time contributing to 42% of Delhi’s total pollution. The chief ministers of both states ask their farmers to not contribute to the pollution every year, however the law is not strongly applied while dealing with the farmers burning their stubble or regulation is not done properly.

The fact also remains that farmers find it easier and more convenient to pay the 1 lakh fine rather than buy a combine harvester for a minimum of 23 lakhs. Perhaps, the money provided to the state of Punjab under the 15th finance commission, will be used to buy the necessary tools to utilise this stubble.A solution to this issue seems to have been found in Pusa where they have engineered a bio-decomposer that can turn the stubble into fresh manure in just 15-20 days, 

Another important issue that needs to be discussed is the management and burning of waste.

27.5% of pollution (PM 2.5) in Delhi is caused due to burning of waste. While the Delhi government has asked us to segregate our waste into biodegradable and non- biodegradable, not only have citizens blatantly ignored this, they are also unsure of what happens to the waste after it is segregated and collected . Many citizens as well as garbage collectors have said that afterwards, the waste is remixed and sent to a nearby landfill. The Delhi government has requested some model wards to follow the simple procedure of segregating their waste to get a head start on the problem. Despite enforcing this policy of segregating waste, they have not ensured that it is disposed properly. Garbage dumps in Delhi are considered to be the most unregulated and hazardous in the world.

However, sometimes the pollution comes from the landfills themselves. “Landfill fires are caused by wet waste rotting and decomposing, leading to methane formation, one of the most toxic greenhouse gases contributing to air pollution, and which is also flammable and leads to fires. Landfill cannot be an option for waste management,” says Chitra Mukherjee from Chintan India.

An example of this is the Bhalswa landfill fires. The 40 acre landfill was ablaze for a week in 2016 due to high methane emissions. Not only did it severely add to the pollution but it also caused several health issues among the residents of the area. An environmentalist from Delhi said that 50% of our waste can be composted and 25% of it can be recycled if the intent is there from the government. Burning of waste at such a high level can cause spikes in the concentration of harmful chemicals such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) and polycyclic organic matter (POMs). These also cause health defects in the people living near them from issues like Asthma, suffocating air to big defects like cancer (by inhaling Dioxins). On October 11th of this year, 28 such fires were reported by citizens and throughout the last month. DFS (Delhi Fire Services) employees have put out 52 of these fires.  

There is another huge contributor to air pollution in Delhi which it seems, has only recently been regulated by the government to a large extent. High average percentages of carbon emissions in Delhi are caused by diesel and petrol vehicles. Despite the policies that have been made to bring down these emissions as well as popular participation in schemes like odd and even, no long lasting drastic changes or impacts have been noticed.

Why is that? Examine the example of the odd-even scheme. The whole basis of the scheme was to reduce the traffic and therefore the total pollution. While this sounds correct in theory, it turned out to actually be transport vehicles like trucks and two wheelers that constitute to 80-90% of vehicular pollution during winters.

However, they were exempted from the rules of the scheme and so it had a minimal effect on overall air quality. The exemptions also turned out to be an issue as the number of exemptions were so high, the scheme was only applicable to a minor percentage of an already small percentage (10%) of Delhi citizens.

The environmental achievements of every party in Delhi have only aimed to contradict the other. Possibly one of the biggest early efforts to improve air quality in Delhi was by Sheila Dikshit. When she came to office, she replaced all the Diesel and Petrol buses in delhi with CNG providing us with the cleanest public transport system (at that time). She was opposed by many who had their own personal interests in the acquisition of diesel for cars and the gain from the rise in its prices.

This highlights not just the need for green policies in Delhi but the good that can be brought by making “radical” policies rather than the current trend of incremental policies for gradual change. Before leaving her post, she started the mammoth task of acquiring a CNG pipeline network for Delhi and making it available at every petrol pump. While her successors have done a good job at this as well, they have not “moved with the times” and have been unsuccessful in providing the necessary change that our city requires- integration of EVs (electrical vehicles).

 The government announced an aggressive target of getting 5 Lakh more EVs on the road by 2024. There are quite a few problems that arise here. While the target seems extremely ambitious, the bigger issue is the fact that attaining it will not have the required effect. We can explore both aspects of this problem. The first being the fact that MNCs and other companies that have their bases or large chunks of their operations in India themselves have yet not moved to going green.

Not only are they not investing in Electric Vehicles, they have not even moved to petrol as of yet. Companies like Mahindra that create cars for high terrains and interstate travel are yet to release petrol versions of most of their cars. This is highly problematic for people living in Delhi as they have to abide by the laws related to diesel cars in Delhi and the time that they can use these cars for. As of now, these companies have just halted the manufacture of diesel cars that they were supposed to release and have given us only a glimpse of the petrol models to be released later on. So we can assume that it will be a long time before we get to see Mahindra EVs on our roads. 

Secondly, the target seems unproductive as well as ridiculously ambitious when you consider the fact that countries less developed or bigger than us are making this change at a larger level and also the fact that our custom duties for EVs have been raised so high that it discourages companies from exporting to India. Elon Musk was hoping to launch Tesla in India, one of the world’s big and budding markets for electric vehicles (EV). But even before Musk could break ground in the subcontinent, the Indian government has decided to increase the basic customs duty on imported EVs to 40% from 25%. Musk was already concerned about the regulations in India, and the latest duty hike on EVs may have made Tesla even less competitive at a time when a lot of local carmakers are joining the EV bandwagon. 

While the finance ministry under Nirmala Sitharaman has allotted a large amount of money (693 crores) to The Scheme for Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electrical Vehicles and seems to appear serious about moving to electric vehicles, the issue also lies in the amount of charging stations we have for electrical vehicles. As per official reports in 2018, we only had 650 charging stations in India making it impractical to carry out interstate as well as intrastate travel using EVs.

Recent Indian news reports have claimed the government may issue orders obliging petrol station owners to install a total of 69,000 electric vehicle charging kiosks at petrol pumps across the country however no proper plans have been made yet for this project and it might follow in the footsteps of other similar projects that were never implemented. The cost of an electrical vehicle is at an average of 15 Lakhs, about 10 lakhs more than any citizen wants to pay for a car that has rare to none charging ports and less power than any petrol diesel vehicle (as higher quality EVs cost way more).

Delhi citizens are also victims to another policy that restricts the use of petrol cars after 15 years and diesel cars after 10 years. While policemen on the streets vigorously ask for papers to prove your car can still be used in Delhi, the law doesn’t exactly explain what is to be done with the car afterwards. While the car may not be allowed in Delhi, it can be re-registered in a different state and used there. The law does not exactly help to reduce overall carbon emissions, it just keeps these cars out of Delhi to pollute somewhere else. Most of the time these cars are either scrapped or sold at a loss to be used again. 

Evidently, the system has let us down while dealing with matters of air pollution. Spreading awareness about the systemic causes of air pollution in India (most importantly Delhi) is not just necessary to make people realise the urgency to formulate a proper green deal or plan to save our environment, but also one of the key steps we should be taking to solve these issues by appealing to the government or protesting against their policies.

It is high time we realise that there are some things that the state and central governments should be held accountable for and that air pollution is not a problem that can be solved with an incremental approach and individual efforts, but something that requires urgent and drastic actions to be taken. India accounts for up to 7% of global carbon emissions and so it becomes the responsibility of our government and our country to draft a Green deal, set targets or even make state-wise plans to reach sustainable development and provide a clean and safe environment for our enormous population.

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