A message for planners

Reorganise public transport. Work out a national air quality action plan

Published: Sunday 31 October 1999

A message for planners

The diesel knockout (Credit: sopan joshi / cse)Due to decades of neglect and indifference, air quality in Indian cities has worsened rapidly, triggering a serious public health crisis. Central and state governments are still at a loss in dealing with the problem and except Delhi, no city is taking effective steps to control pollution. Even in Delhi, the drive to deal with pollution is not coming from the government but the Supreme Court. Recently, high courts in Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh have clamped down on the polluting three-wheelers by either banning them or pushing them to run on cleaner fuels.

One serious problem is poor monitoring of air quality. Several small cities and towns are not covered by the monitoring grid of cpcb and the state pollution control boards (spcbs). It is important to have reliable data to understand trends -- not just of the few pollutants that are monitored today but also of other toxins released into the air, the levels of which could be very high, posing a serious health risk. The data should give a clear idea of emissions of gases that need to be controlled on priority. cpcb monitors only three pollutants on a routine basis: spm, nox and so2. Carbon monoxide is monitored at some sites on a limited scale. And there is no information on the levels of other air toxins such as ozone and benzene. It is not possible to identify sources of air pollution and the precise strategies to target the polluters. There is no air quality modelling to work out these strategies and adopt clear air quality targets. Given the alarming levels of air pollution, India cannot afford to wait indefinitely for planning processes to take shape.

Weak institutions with almost no back-up of good science are partly to blame for this. spcbs draw considerable flak for not being technically competent enough to deal with the problem. There are allegations that appointments are politically motivated and not based on technical considerations. When B Sengupta, member secretary of cpcb, was asked to comment on the technical prowess of spcb officials, he agreed that the top appointees of these boards do not have the required technical and scientific background. Transport department officials are totally at sea when it comes to the technicalities.

In some spcb offices visited by Down To Earth reporters, officials tried to justify air pollution in the name of industrial development. The data they generate is hardly ever publicised to let people know the air pollution levels in their cities. It has to be made clear that air quality monitoring is not a mere academic exercise but a means to improve living conditions.

"SPCBs are interested only in industrial air pollution and not in vehicular pollution. For one, inventories of the pollution sources are a must at the city level," says S A Dutta, scientist and vehicular air pollution expert at cpcb, New Delhi. He believes that in the absence of other systems of public transport, the state road transport corporations can be asked to take up local transport as well: "They already have the infrastructure. And if it is difficult to ply large buses on narrow streets, they can resort to mini-buses or other such medium-sized vehicles."

A national initiative
"We need a composite air quality planning exercise on a national level to identify pollution 'hot spots' and work out an action plan with city-wise air quality targets," says Anumita Roychowdhury, coordinator of the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment's (cse's) Right To Clean Air Campaign (see box: Blueprint of an action plan). She also points to the 1996 cse publication Slow Murder: The deadly story of vehicular pollution in India, which says the following: "A National Vehicular Pollution Prevention Commission should be set up by the government of India, comprising not of ministers and bureaucrats... but of technical and medical experts, industrialists and public-spirited environmentalists."

But a national-level body does not free the states of their responsibility. "Wherever Vikrams have been banned, no alternatives have been provided to the commuter. Naturally, a two-wheeler is an easy solution. This means you cannot solve the pollution problem without effective policy measures. In this situation, it is not free enterprise but the government which has to do the needful," says Dinesh Mohan, professor and coordinator, Transport Research and Injury Prevention Programme of the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi. Any mention of the government brings in the responsibility on the electorate. The civil society has to take the lead in making people aware of the abysmal air quality and put pressure on the state governments to get their act together.

Reported by Kazimuddin Ahmed, Mridula Chettri, S S Jeevan, Sopan Joshi, C Lianchawii and Aju Mukhupadhyay.

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