Late last month, the Supreme Court (SC), having taken suo motu notice of the deteriorating Air Quality Index (AQI) in the national capital region (NCR) and some other cities in India, called for committed action by state governments and the Centre to end pollution.
The SC had come down heavily against the government machinery for having failed to check pollution, saying, “… why they (the states) should not be required to pay compensation to such persons who are being affected by inadequate arrangement to check air pollution?” Yet, the SC has allowed construction of the India Trade Promotion Organisation’s (ITPO’s) Integrated Exhibition-cum-Convention Centre project to go on, despite itself having banned all construction and demolition activity in the NCR on November 4.
The ban on other construction is to stay till the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) submits its report. Meanwhile, the restrictions on industrial activity, imposed by the Environmental Pollution Control Agency that SC had created to tackle pollution in the NCR, remain.
Be it odd-even, the EPCA’s graded action plan, or even the attempts to control stubble burning in the winter months, the approach has been quite ad hoc—while stubble burning does make the NCR a “gas chamber”, it is a seasonal phenomenon; construction and road dust contribute 35% of the national capital’s PM 2.5 pollution (50% of its PM 10 pollution), and domestic cooking and vehicular emissions contribute 22% each.
Episodic measures may offer relief, but there is an undeniable need for more concerted action; at-scale, transformative measures are necessary—Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment cites Delhi’s move to CNG for public transport roughly two decades ago as an example of such effort. So, instead of having odd-even, it is perhaps necessary to ensure stricter vehicular emission standards and incentivise the auto industry to transition to cleaner fuels.
A rationing of vehicle sales—though that would be intervening in market dynamics—could also be an interim measure even as the capacity of mass transport systems like buses and railways is beefed up. Coal and other polluting fuels need to be eased out hastily from both industrial and domestic use—many societies in the NCR are still dependent on diesel generators for power back-up—not just in Delhi, but across the NCR states.
This will mean ensuring supply of electricity and gas to households and industries. Power generation itself also has to shed fossil fuel dependence—while the Badarpur power plant in Delhi was permanently shut down only last year, 10 power plants around Delhi, at least till mid-November, were set to miss the December deadline for installing pollution control devices. Installation of smog towers, which the SC has mentioned in its order, too, must commence once the government is assured of their efficacy.
Stubble burning, vehicular emissions, cracker smoke—all of these need acting against, but the government and the SC should be asking themselves if these measures amount to anything more than sticking a band-aid. Without long-term measures, Delhi will be keep needing ventilator support every year.