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Cover Story

Steering the way

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Nov 15, 2002 | From the print edition

The computer-generated Anil Agarwal Clean Air Model, developed by CSE, assesses what it takes to clean up Delhi's air. Some astounding results have come out of its first application. Had the Supreme Court not intervened, Delhi would have been choking on 38 per cent more particulates. Pollution is indeed about taking hard decisions...and fast.

-- New Delhi, 15 November
In 1998, Delhi witnessed one of the worst winters of the decade. For much of the season, the city was enveloped by a deadly smog. Respiratory illnesses were rising and there was an alarming increase in hospital admissions. As officials were caught up in the all-familiar inertia, the Supreme Court stepped in. What followed was a series of rulings that have laid the foundation for a roadmap to clean up Delhi's air. People already feel the difference. The air is much cleaner now than it was in 1998. But most people don't know exactly by how much emissions have come down.

"The public must come to grips with precise information rather than some generalities because they don't lend themselves to any action. People's state of air pollution report will help to spread information about the precise nature of the problem and solution. No one can be perfect but it helps to be as precise as you can," said Anil Agarwal, former chairperson of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). This was his clean air campaign message to the people in January 2000. This was also the beginning of a very rigorous number crunching process at CSE - in technical parlance a computer model to estimate the trends in vehicular emissions load and impact of different policy measures. The objective was to make people aware and understand what has been achieved due to the Supreme Court's intervention and how we must move ahead.

The model captures Anil's vision and his anguish. "None of us as of yet have enough information to know how to clean up Delhi's air with precision. But in two years we have done our best to identify key actions with as much precision as we can. So precision will come with time. It evolves. But make every effort not to advocate sloppy decisions." The clean air model is a people's model and a guard against sloppy decisions. People can use this to know precisely the impact of policies on air quality now and in the future. It can help to formulate policies, assess their impact and then push the government to act.

The CSE's Clean Air Model

Anger and action
So far the transition has come about only due to the Supreme Court's initiative, which forwarded Euro II emissions standards for new vehicles, lowered sulphur content in diesel and petrol to 500 ppm, mandated clean fuels like compressed natural gas (CNG) for public transport, and phased-out 15-year-old commercial vehicles. In addition, it ruled for better inspection and maintenance programme for in-use vehicles, strengthening of air quality monitoring and checking adulteration. These measures have made a visible impact and are setting the agenda for other cities as well. But much more needs to be done.

But these gains can be frittered away so easily because of the lackadaisical attitude of the government. For all its efforts the court actions have stabilised the runaway pollution - an achievement in a city that recorded particulate levels reaching as high as eight to nine times the standards. But it is still way above the permissible limit. Clearly, it is time to take a hard look at the decade-old unresolved question of what needs to be done to clean up the vehicular fleet.

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