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Sunita Narain: Delhi's clean-air challenge

Sunita Narain 

Sunita Narain

It is good that deadly and toxic air pollution in Delhi has become a national headline. But it is bad that as yet we are completely failing to deal with it and find answers that are commensurate with the scale of the problem. It is time to understand what we have done and the actions that need to be taken - urgently and decisively. Otherwise, next winter - just barely five months away - will be even more severe and even more hazardous. Let's also be clear that while foreigners can choose not to live in polluted Delhi, most of us do not have that option. Let's also be clear that home air purifiers and filters are not the solution - even if the rich of the city believe that they can shut down their houses and clean their own private air, it will not work.

Some 16 years ago, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) issued an advertisement: "Roll down the window of your bullet-proof car, Mr Prime Minister. The security threat is not the gun, it is the air of Delhi." This was the time when the air of Delhi was sick with black smoke, fuel and emission standards were virtually non-existent and motorisation was just beginning to take off. The agenda for action - also listed by the CSE in the public notice - was to advance a road map for fuel-emission standards; restrict diesel vehicles; and make the transition to a much cleaner fuel, compressed natural gas (CNG).

But not anymore. Each year since 2007, pollution levels have risen to reach dangerously toxic levels today. This winter, the level of PM2.5 - tiny particles emitted from vehicles that can go deep into our lungs and enter the blood stream - remained three-four times higher than the standard of safety. In fact, in November, December and January, air was classified as "severely polluted" for over 65 per cent of the days. According to the government's own air quality index, this would mean pollution is so bad that it would cause "respiratory effects even on healthy people". It is unsafe to breathe. This is what we must realise.

So what has happened to make Delhi, once again, wheeze, choke and die because of dirty air? The fact is that in the past decade, since the introduction of CNG, some things have changed. One, there has been an explosion of personal vehicles - near 100 per cent increase in registration in Delhi alone. So even as each car has become cleaner, because of tighter emission standards and better quality of fuel, the number has increased exponentially. The net result on pollution is the same.

Second, while in 2000 diesel cars were only four per cent of the total sales, this increased to 50 per cent by mid-2000. Each diesel car is legally allowed to emit four-seven times more than the petrol variant. Pollution is inevitable. Third, the bypass road, ordered by the Supreme Court way back in 2004, was never built. So as many as 50,000 trucks transit through the city, using dirty fuel and even dirtier technology.

There is one new pollution source - non-vehicle, which has made an entry after mid-2000. Punjab and Haryana directed farmers to delay paddy transplantation to save on groundwater usage in peak summer. But now there is no time for farmers to harvest paddy and grow wheat. They burn the straw. So in October and November, just as winter inversion is settling in, this fire makes it way to the already polluted airshed of Delhi.

What needs to be done, most immediately, is to have an aggressive road map for clean fuel and vehicle technology in the country. But this is not acceptable to powerful vehicle manufacturers. So even as the oil companies started supply of cleaner fuel across north India from April 1, car companies have succeeded in getting an extension for supply of clean vehicles from the surface transport ministry. This, knowing fully well, would bring down pollution from diesel trucks entering the city significantly. Now, the same car companies are busy arguing that they should continue to have a licence to pollute. They want eight to 10 years to move to the cleaner vehicle technology that Europe uses today. These companies need to understand that we have all run out of time and air to breath.

The other steps are equally urgent - from monitoring air quality to smog alerts, so that we know when we are advised to take precautions because of bad air. But most critically - the game changer, if you can call it - is the need to massively augment our public transport systems - from bus, metro to footpaths and cycle tracks, so that we can take a bus and then cross the road or just walk. We also need car restraints - parking rates and fines for illegal parking need to be increased and then enforced. Today, we have a handful of cranes and sprinkling of traffic police to stop illegal parking. This cannot go on.

In mid-1990, we published a report on air pollution and called it Slow Murder. That is what it is - deliberate and deadly. Nothing less.

The writer is at the Centre for Science and Environment
Twitter: @sunitanar

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First Published: Sun, June 07 2015. 21:46 IST