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Tough measures needed to clear India's foul air

R. Krishnakumar
Filed on November 14, 2019

In AirVisual's 2018 ranking of the world's most polluted cities, the top 10 had seven from India.

Last week, as plummeting air quality in New Delhi and India's National Capital Region was setting off fresh concerns over pollution in major cities, as familiar calls were being made for development models that are sensitive to environmental outcomes, a Supreme Court bench went all blunt as it asked the authorities - "Can you permit people to die like this?" The apex court, as it slammed governments' ineptness in checking the rising amounts of Particulate Matter (PM) in the air, was also doubling as a voice from India's teeming cities that grapple with urban chaos. Delhi could be the face of India's pollution perils but outside of unique meteorological patterns, a grim uniformity marks the crisis as it unfolds in different parts of the country.

Some of the key triggers - industry, unchecked construction and burgeoning automobile sales among them - are standard across major cities. There are also parallels in the manner in which the public and political dispensation respond to the crisis; protesters in surgical masks offer an unsettling contrast to legislators who pose for photographs as they cycle to work. Amid the anger and acrimony, the populism and PR, Vineet Agarwal Sharda has lent a touch of droll intrigue. Sharda, leader of India's ruling BJP, traced the pollution to "poisonous gases" released by China and Pakistan. That's the kind of standard-fare contrarian India can't distance itself from at a time when everything comes with a serving of nationalism.

As urban planners revisit strategies to tackle the crisis, it's important to keep asking what the court has asked and seek answers that draw from real-time examples backed by independent policy-making bodies. For a start, there needs to be acknowledgement on the scale of the problem; this is a crisis that needs strategies that go beyond the scope of an annual, winter exigency.

Delhi tops the list of the world's worst affected major cities in Air Quality Index ranking compiled by Swiss-based research group IQ AirVisual. The PM 2.5 (particles measuring 2.5 microns or less in diameter) level stood at 553, classified as 'hazardous'. Kolkata - at no. 10 - is the other Indian city that figures in the worst-affected 10. In AirVisual's 2018 ranking of the world's most polluted cities, the top 10 had seven from India. Studies have identified vehicle emissions and construction dust as major contributors to air pollution in cities including Bengaluru, in the south. New Delhi-headquartered The Energy and Resources Institute identifies road dust, vehicular emissions, burning of agricultural residues and waste and coal-based power plants among major contributors to air pollution in India. The Supreme Court has set a three-month deadline for the Central Government to prepare a scheme to ensure that small and marginal farmers don't need to burn stubble. The authorities could explore possibilities in converting agricultural waste to energy.

The National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) was launched in January this year, in what the Central Government called an attempt to bring in a "comprehensive, time-bound, national-level strategy" to tackle air pollution. The NCAP proposes a 20% to 30% reduction in PM 2.5 and PM 10 concentration by 2024 (with 2017 as base year). The way forward is in accepting political and bureaucratic hurdles as tropes in the big picture, devising a consolidated, inclusive policy and minimising the gap between idea and implementation. The jury is still out on effectiveness of the Delhi government's temporary, conditional 'odd-even scheme' under which four-wheelers with odd and even last digits on their registration plates are permitted to ply only on odd and even dates, respectively. Urban planning experts, meanwhile, maintain that the focus should be on time-bound programmes that make civic bodies accountable in implementation of tough measures including congestion taxes and checks on construction. This is where an independent authority that exercises more than advisory powers could make a start. And a focused start, for now, should work better than the yearly drill of piecemeal planning.

- The writer is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru


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