COVID-19 lockdown: What are the lessons for Graded Response Action Plan

It is time for the government to order more robust source apportionment studies for cities hit by plummeting air quality  

By Hardik Siroha
Published: Tuesday 26 May 2020
A deserted view of Rajpath during the lockdown. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE
A deserted view of Rajpath during the lockdown. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE A deserted view of Rajpath during the lockdown. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE

The lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24 made people more worried about jobs, internships, businesses and above all, their lives.

Yet, a silver lining has been the (seemingly so) rejuvenation of nature. From sights of animals like Nilgai in Chandigarh to (the now proven-to-be-hoax) dolphins in the canals of Venice, it has surely been a nature lover’s delight. 

A lot has already been written about the effects of this lockdown on air quality, as air pollution has fallen to dropped sharply.

For example, if we look at data from the numerous air quality monitoring stations installed by various State Pollution Control Boards, the week immediately after the lockdown witnessed a 71 per cent drop in major pollutant indicators.

Whether this improvement could have happened without such a drastic measure like a lockdown has been a matter of debate. However, one debate that needs to be held is how is this lockdown different from the one we have during the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) in Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR) districts.

I know, some readers might find the comparison to be rather far-fetched but it isn’t. GRAP is a multi-pronged and cohesive action plan, which was put in place by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) in 2017 to tackle pollution in the NCR.

The Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) is a body constituted in 1998 for the Delhi-NCR region to tackle the menace of air pollution (yes, we have been dealing with this issue for a while, perhaps longer than one can imagine).

Whenever it puts the Air Quality Index (AQI) into ‘very poor’ and ‘severe’ categories during winter, GRAP comes into play.

It leads to a ban on the use of diesel generator sets in Delhi, the closure of brick kilns, hot mix plants and stone crushers across NCR and the shutdown of the Badarpur power plant for the winter months.

With the passage of time, the GRAP has become more and more stringent.

Last year, when I was posted in Faridabad, it had come to a point where the severely limited staff of Haryana State Pollution Control Board (HSPCB) had to do patrol every night till around midnight and had to report to duty again in the morning, with the main intention of ensuring that no industry capable of causing air pollution, was operating in the city.

Construction activities also get completely banned during the GRAP and it creates a situation almost similar to the one currently: Business takes a hit; workers go hungry and people (at least the industrialists) complain about the severe damage which it will cause to the economy.

Despite all this, we have not been able to contain the air pollution to the extent which we should have.

For example, although we have reduced particulate matter (PM) concentration by nearly 25 per cent over the past a few years. Yet, if we look at data during Diwali last year, on October 27, from 50 odd monitoring stations in Delhi and NCR from evening to night, it becomes evident that we ended up crossing the PM 2.5 limit by a factor of 12.

I fully agree that meteorological conditions are different during winters and summer. However, it is not a wise practice to put the whole blame on them for the worsening AQI.

Neither can we make stubble burning the sole culprit, as it ceases in January but air remains bad even then. Even during summer, we see wheat harvesting and crop residue burning (although to a limited extent) taking place.

What I am trying to say by throwing all this data and facts and figures is that, perhaps there’s a factor, a variable which we still aren’t accounting.

It may be vehicles, as that is the only major difference which can be observed in the lockdown and the GRAP, or it may be something which we aren’t even fathoming.

This lockdown has thrown at us some serious questions about life, health and environment. I guess, it’s high time we start questioning our pollution control strategies and practices.

Perhaps rather than witch hunting, it’s time for the government to put the money where its mouth is and order more robust source apportionment studies for the cities hit by plummeting air quality.

Hardik Siroha is an Assistant Environmental Engineer with Haryana's state pollution control board

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