More than one and a half decades ago, the effect of Delhi’s deteriorating air quality level on the city’s architectural wonders and the health of its citizens forced the Supreme Court to ask the government to adopt the environment friendly Compressed Natural Gas (CNG)-fuelled public transport system. Today, the city’s air pollution level has once again risen to the level that the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has banned all diesel vehicles older than 10 years. While the decision is a welcome step, the question still remains: Is this enough to check the pollution level in Delhi which has surpassed that of Beijing?
With the concentration of respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM or PM 10) much higher than safe levels, it will not be wrong to call Delhi the pollution capital of the country. In fact, according to a World Health Organisation report, air quality levels measured in as many as 1,600 cities across the globe showed New Delhi as the most polluted city in the world. Not only is its air pollution 10 times the acceptable standards, the city also has the highest levels of particulate matter (PM 2.5), which is the most harmful to human health.
Pollution levels have risen so much that we are not even safe indoors. Environmentalist Mahendra Pandey in his newsletter Environment Alerts writes, “According to media reports, the air pollution level inside the court room of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) was found to be four times more than the norm. The measurement of air pollution was done by former Solicitor General of India, Harish Salve, and the instrument was provided by Centre for Science and Environment. Indoor pollution is not a new phenomenon. But till date not even a draft policy on the subject has been developed. The Central Pollution Control Board and the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change have always neglected the issue.”
Lack of an effective public transport system, rising number of vehicles, construction activities in the surrounding regions, emission from industries and coal thermal power plants in the city and the suburbs is taking a toll on the otherwise green city.
According to a joint study by Boston-based Health Effects Institute and Delhi’s Energy Resources Institute, at least 3,000 people die prematurely every year in the city because of air pollution. Respiratory diseases are on the rise and more cases of asthma are being reported among the city’s children. Latest studies also say that air pollutants contribute to incurable damage to the cardiovascular system. Harmful air pollutants cause a range of cardiovascular diseases like artery blockages leading to heart attacks and death of heart tissue due to oxygen deprivation leading to permanent heart damage.
Health risks apart, the city’s marble monuments are also suffering the consequences of polluted air. The worst affected is the Lotus Temple. Made of porous Pentelikon marble imported from Greece, the Lotus Temple, also known as the Baha’i Temple, is turning grey and may soon lose its architectural glory. A petition was filed recently in the NGT regarding heavy traffic in Nehru Place and the lack of proper parking space. Petitioner Sanjeev Ailawadi urged the court to direct the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC), Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and the Delhi government to identify the places where multilevel parking can be constructed to prevent choked roads that add to toxic vehicular pollution. The tribunal observed that the main cause for the structure’s poor state were emissions from nearby traffic, burning of rubber and plastic, gas emissions from a nearby plant and fly ash.
Like the Lotus Temple, rising pollution is having the same impact on the Parthenon in Greece and even the Taj Mahal in India. Time and again governments propose several measures to combat pollution but fail to understand that it must be a continuous process.
The NGT seems to have pulled up its socks judging from its recent actions from banning diesel vehicles older than 10 years to stopping construction activities along the national highway in Noida Extension and Gurgaon unless they take corrective measures to stop polluting the environment. After a notice sent by the NGT, the governments of Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan decided to come up with an action plan to tackle air pollution in Delhi and the national capital region (NCR) by July this year. Strict action against visibly polluting vehicles and automatic identification of overloaded vehicles at the borders are two of the measures included in a three-month action plan devised by the four states.
The Delhi government is planning to launch an online monitoring system to map air polluting activities in the city and stringent action will be taken against polluting vehicles in coordination with the traffic police. The Delhi government will regularly check Pollution Under Control centres to ensure that their equipment is not tampered with and they are using proper mechanisms to issue certificates.
The problem of overloaded trucks contributing to air pollution while crossing Delhi late at night will be looked into and an automatic number plate recognition system will be launched by the government to check non-destined vehicles. Construction and demolition waste disposal plants will be built by the municipal corporation in East and South Delhi. The corporations have issued new directions against ‘no-burning at all’ and will also appoint a ward-wise nodal officer who will register complaints against burning waste across Delhi.
The Haryana government has also expressed its commitment to the swift completion of infrastructural projects like the Manesar-Palwal and Kondli-Manesar bypasses apart from opening additional monitoring stations in Sonepat and Panipat. Similarly the Rajasthan government has prepared an action plan to check air pollution generated by industrial units in Bhiwadi by checking their fuel quality. It has also issued directions for no burning of wastes.
Uttar Pradesh has also proposed the conversion of 18 of its coal-based air polluting industries in the NCR districts into gas driven units within three months. It will also launch air quality monitoring stations in Noida and Ghaziabad.
Air Quality Index
Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently launched the national Air Quality Index (AQI). With this, India joined a global league of nations, including the US, France, China and Mexico, that have implemented such an alert system. The system will alert people about the air quality and its likely health implications. To start with, it will be implemented in 10 cities — Delhi, Faridabad, Agra, Kanpur, Lucknow, Varanasi, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad — to help people take precautions on days when the air quality is reported poor.
Undoubtedly these measures, if stringently implemented, will help control air pollution to a considerable extent. But it is high time the government checks the rising number of vehicles in the city and its adjoining areas. It is alarming that the city has over 1,000 new personal vehicles on the road every day. There are more than four million registered vehicles in Delhi and a higher number of vehicles enter the city from the national capital region.
Vehicles on road
But who’s to blame for this growing number of vehicles?
Despite the gradual expansion of the Metro service, the city still lacks an effective public transport system. The need is not just to link the entire city but to also include all corners of NCR. As a majority of the workforce now commutes from one part of NCR to the other, many feel that a broad detailed transport plan bringing together the Delhi Metro, Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC), auto rickshaws and e-rickshaws is the need of the hour.
In 2005, the government had planned to introduce the EURO II standard but as it was not found feasible, CNG was introduced in the transport sector. The price of CNG remained comparatively low for a few years but the subsidy was gradually reduced and was on par with petrol. Today, though the price of CNG is less in Delhi, it is relatively high in the NCR. Besides, the maintenance of CNG vehicles is also a costly affair, the lack of which can be life threatening. Rise in the price of CNG, lack of adequate number of filling stations in Delhi and no filling stations at all in some adjoining states are forcing people to purchase diesel vehicles.
Though subsidy on diesel has been done away with and prices are up compared to previous years, there is still a difference of Rs 10 in the prices of diesel and petrol. The low price of diesel and low maintenance cost relative to CNG vehicles pulls people towards diesel-fuelled vehicles. But even the so-called cleaner private diesel cars emit 4-7 times more pollutants than petrol vehicles. Both people as well as the government are to blame for this trend. While the government has failed to come up with ways to restrict the purchase of diesel-fuelled vehicles, people in Delhi have also failed to realise their disastrous effect on the environment. The money they save on fuel goes towards medicine to fix the problems caused by this environmental damage and the city pays a huge price — the loss of many lives.
In 2001, the annual average level of RSPM in residential areas stood at 149 micrograms per cubic metre, which dropped in 2005. But the level shot up once again to 209 micrograms per cubic metre in 2008. The air we breathe is toxic and will gradually kill us. Despite having heard this at least once, people neither abstain from burning solid wastes nor do they stop others from doing the same.
Backyard burning has become the norm and all those who oppose the trend face the wrath of their neighbours. As Sultan Singh who lives in Shalimar Garden, Ghaziabad says, “I am tired of explaining to people that it is wrong to burn waste. They say ‘it is our land or public land, so don’t interfere.’”
Besides proper waste management, a lot needs to be done to spread awareness about the harmful effects of burning solid wastes as well as the benefits of opting for public transport. We need to check these harmful emissions at the earliest and be a little more sensitive towards nature. Government, NGOs, brothers and sisters, are you listening?