Enough is enough

For over a week after Diwali, Delhi breathed poison. Air pollution peaked to unprecedented levels. Public anger forced emergency measures. But they are not enough. How can we avoid this annual mayhem?

A report by Vivek Chattopadhyaya, Usman Nasim, Polash Mukerjee, Rajeshwari Ganesan, Anupam Chakravartty, Shambhavi Shukla, Anisha Raman AND Anu K Soman

Photo: Vikas Choudhary
Photo: Vikas Choudhary Photo: Vikas Choudhary

Enough is enough

Smog chokes Delhi with eerie regularity. But why doesn't our suffocation wake us up? Just like the recent post-Diwali episode of extreme pollution, we are caught unawares each winter. What's disturbing is the criminal charade of fixing the blame when all are to be blamed. Down To Earth tracks the 20-year-long fight to clean Delhi's air. It is clear that behind the unfathomable smog in the capital, there is a dirty nexus of players with vested interests who put profit over people's health. It is this lobby that has made the air lethal. It is time to say enough is enough. It is time to fight for action

WHEN RESIDENTS of the national capital woke up the morning after Diwali, on October 31, the city gave the feel of a post-apocalyptic world. A blanket of thick smog had engulfed Delhi. The air was just not breathable. As hospitals started getting deluged with patients complaining of respiratory problems, there was confusion all around. The government showed no emergency in dealing with the pollution that was too high to be measured by monitoring machines in some localities. The worst affected were children, who have a respiration rate higher than adults but are more susceptible to air pollution.

Priya (name changed) delivered a healthy baby girl in Delhi’s Indraprastha Apollo Hospital on October 29. But she had no clue about the harrowing time the baby was to go through. The doctors advised the parents to keep the girl in the hospital for two-three days because the next day was Diwali, when the pollution levels are at their peak every year. The parents agreed to the idea. However, on October 31, the baby developed breathing trouble and had to be moved to the intensive care unit. “Doctors say the baby had perfectly developed lungs when she was born but is likely to suffer from bronchitis for life,” cries an inconsolable Priya. The reason, they say, is the high level of particulate matter in the air. On November 5 and 6, PM2.5 levels (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns that enters the blood stream via lungs) reached 837 microgram per cubic metre (µg/m3). The safe limit for humans is 60 µg/m3.

Delhi’s polluted air is not a secret. But what the city witnessed in the week after Diwali was unheard of. Air quality monitoring stations reported the situation to be the worst in almost two decades. According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), on November 2, 5 and 6, PM2.5 levels reached 999 at Punjabi Bagh and Anand Vihar. This is the maximum possible level most monitoring machines in the city are equipped to measure.

Priya’s was not the only such case. Deepak and Anju Goswami, who live in Ghaziabad on the outskirts of Delhi, spent the post-Diwali week running from one hospital to another in search of an affordable healthcare facility. On October 30, their six-year-old daughter Shreya started having severe trouble in breathing. She was unable to eat and became agitated. Born with Ventricular Septal Defect, or a hole in the heart, Shreya had undergone a surgery when she was eight months old. For children born with such defects, a polluted atmosphere can be fatal, say doctors. Moving her around the city for three hours with high PM2.5 and carbon monoxide levels was akin to making her smoke five cigarettes.

Photo: Bhaskarjyoti Goswami

Shreya’s ordeal did not end even after she got emergency care at the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in central Delhi. In the next 24 hours the air quality kept deteriorating. The concentration of PM2.5 in the atmosphere in a 15 km radius of Anand Vihar Bus Station (which is near Ghaziabad) reached 883 µg/m3. And Shreya’s parents had to rent a breathing apparatus with oxygen supply for her in their house. By November 5, PM2.5 touched 996 µg/m3. Both her siblings were also breathless throughout the week, says Deepak.

The situation was similar in other parts of the city. “We get 150 to 200 patients a day around this time of the year. About 80 per cent of them complain of respiratory problems and over 50 per cent of these cases are children under five,” says Vineetha, medical officer in-charge at ESI Dispensary in Sarojini Nagar, Delhi. “Airways, lungs and immune system of children are not fully developed, which makes them vulnerable to allergies, respiratory infections and irreversible lung damage,” says Anupam Sibal, senior paediatrician at the Indraprastha Apollo Hospital.

Though delayed, the smog drew reactions from all quarters—the state and Central governments, the Supreme Court, the High Court of Delhi, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), the civil society and city residents. On October 29, Delhi’s environment minister Imran Hussain blamed the burning of crop residues in neighbouring Punjab and Haryana for the crisis. The states countered by saying that bursting of crackers during Diwali in Delhi was the root cause. The Delhi government ordered closure of schools for three days on November 6, shut down Badarpur Thermal Power Station, stopped all construction activities and banned bursting of firecrackers except on religious occasions. The sale of surgical masks went through the roof because people wanted to wear them while stepping out of the house. On November 8, the Supreme Court asked why the city cannot be shut to fight the problem of pollution. The steps brought temporary relief, but they cannot provide a permanent solution to Delhi’s pollution problems. It’s time the government identified the factors that cause such a sharp rise in pollution levels in the national capital and take stock of the actions taken to curb its load.


Delhi has more four-wheelers than any other city in the country

A 2015 study by the Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur (IIT-K) says vehicles are the second largest source of PM2.5 emissions in the city, accounting for 20 per cent. The largest source, at 38 per cent, is road dust, which is mostly generated by vehicular movement (see ‘Perfect recipe for smog’). Vehicles are also a continuous source of toxic fumes.

Source: Delhi Pollution Control Committee` (Graphic: Raj Kumar Singh)

Delhi has 8.8 million registered vehicles, inclu ding 2.8 million cars. And their number increases by around 1,560 every day. The expansion of the city and the growth of the neighbouring towns of Noida and Gurgaon (now Gurugram) has significantly increased vehicle influx. Delhi non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), based on real-time cross border traffic survey in June 2015, has exposed that the number of personal and passenger vehicles (cars, SUVs, two-wheelers, taxis and buses) that enter Delhi daily are close to the total number of vehicles that get registered in the national capital in a year. More cars­—as many as 0.4 million—enter Delhi daily than those registered annually in the national capital; about 0.17 million cars were registered in 2014-15. These contribute close to a quarter of the total particulate load.

Though emission and fuel quality norms have become more stringent—from Bharat Stage II (BS II) in 2000 to BS IV in 2010—the gains made through this have been nullified by the increase in number of vehicles. Diesel cars, which are three to seven times more polluting than petrol cars, have further added to the toxicity. Delhi has moved all its buses, autos and taxis to CNG. But diesel car numbers have exploded—from 4 per cent of new car sales in 2000 to over 50 per cent in 2014. Already the levels of diesel-related pollutants—PM2.5, PM10, NOx and ozone—are high and increasing in Delhi’s air. The IIT-K study says diesel four-wheelers contribute 70-80 per cent of the PM2.5 from transport sector in the city.

The Supreme Court and NGT have given a slew of orders to curb vehicular pollution. In December 2015, NGT ordered a ban on all diesel vehicles older than 10 years in the city. Earlier, the Supreme Court had banned 15-year-old commercial vehicles. The Supreme Court further passed orders in 2015 and 2016 to ban registration of luxury diesel cars of 2,000 CC and above (it later lifted the ban after imposing 1 per cent cess) and directed that taxis be shifted from diesel fuel to CNG in the Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR). These decisions are primarily targeted at reducing toxic diesel emissions and to stop misuse of low-taxed diesel for luxury consumption.


Their huge number makes them a major source of pollution

Two-wheelers pose a dilemma. These affordable, fuel- and space-efficient vehicles of the masses contribute enormously to pollution. Two-wheelers constitute 80 per cent of the total vehicles sales in the country. The IIT-K study says two-wheelers contribute 33 per cent of total PM2.5 emitted from all vehicles. Though its market has seen major transition in India in the past 15 years, with two-stroke engines being replaced by more fuel-efficient and cleaner four-stroke engines, studies indicate that two-stroke two-wheelers still account for a quarter of the total two-wheelers on the road.

Emissions norms for two-wheelers have been tighter in the country than the rest of the world, especially to control carbon monoxide emissions. However there are concerns about potential high NOx emissions from four-stroke engines that power nearly all new vehicles now, because the norms do not regulate NOx separately. A combined limit for hydrocarbon and NOx allows margin for higher NOx emissions when vehicle is optimised for higher fuel efficiency. There is a technical trade off between NOx emissions and fuel economy. Two-wheeler industry is gearing up to meet BS IV norms which will come in force from April 2017. These norms have separate NOx limit, but the limit has still been kept higher than that of petrol cars.

A paradigm shift in two-wheeler technology is expected with the enforcement of BS VI norms in 2020. With BS VI, India, for the first time, will set particulate standards for two-wheelers, have tighter and separate NOx and hydrocarbon limits, and on-board diagnostic systems. Also, there is a move to promote two-wheelers that run on electricity. But the ultimate solution will come from promoting affordable public transport.


These diesel vehicles are difficult to check as Delhi is a major transit point

The June 2015 traffic count survey by CSE suggests that light and heavy trucks that enter Delhi daily spew close to 30 per cent of the total particulate load and 22 per cent of the total NOx load released by the transport sector. The estimates were part of a report prepared by the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority. Taking note of the estimates, the Supreme Court on October 9, 2015 imposed a green tax or environment compensation charge (ECC) on commercial goods vehicles entering Delhi from the city’s 124 entry points. Different amount of ECC was levied on different types of trucks—Rs 700 and Rs 1,300 on light-duty trucks and trucks having two or more axles respectively. Trucks carrying essential commodities like food and petroleum were exempted. The move had immediate impact. Another traffic count survey by CSE in December 2015 suggests that the decrease in truck traffic led to a reduction of 30-35 per cent in particulate load and NOx levels in this vehicle category.

Though ECC has been introduced in Delhi, there were concerns that manual collection might allow tax evasion. To address this, the Supreme Court directed that the ECC collected should be used for installing a radio frequency identification (RFID) infrastructure in Delhi. RFID is an electronic system that allows automatic toll collection when vehicles pass through the entry gates. ECC will be transferred to government accounts. The Supreme Court, in an order passed on August 22, 2016, has asked the Delhi government to release Rs 120 crore from the ECC account to the South Delhi Municipal Corporation, which has been appointed as the executing agency for the installation of RFID.

Thirteen key entry points have been identified where RFID installation will be done on a pilot basis. These entry points bring in as much as 80 per cent of the truck traffic. The court has also asked the transport department to give Rs 93 lakh to RITES Ltd, a government of India undertaking, to vet the RFID project for implementation.

RFID will not only allow efficient collection of toll but also opens up the enormous possibility of tracking vehicle operations and performance. It can be broadened to include all vehicle segments and help in traffic and pollution control in future.

Delhi has witnessed a prolonged battle against pollution from trucks and has evolved a more complex set of control measures compared to other cities, with good results. Action on trucks started in 2005 when the Supreme Court directed creation of two peripheral expressways to divert transit traffic away from Delhi. The eastern and western peripheral expressways are within the jurisdiction of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. But lack of coordination, rigid investments and lack of timely action has delayed these projects.


Stringent policies needed to discourage cars and to promote public transport

Growing dependence on cars can negate pollution control efforts. About 55 per cent of Delhi lives within 500 metres from some road side where the impact of toxic vehicular fumes is huge. The Delhi Master Plan 2021 has set targets for improving the share of public transport ridership to 80 per cent by 2021. There is still no plan to meet this target.

Bus numbers at 5,762 fall woefully short of the Supreme Court mandate of 10,000. Service conditions of buses have deteriorated and share of bus ridership has dropped from 60 per cent in 2000 to 40 per cent in 2008. Though the Metro rail network has expanded, it will be able to cater to only 20 per cent of the travel demand in 2020. Delhi will have to reinvent public transport to make it convenient and attractive for all. Buses, Metro, taxis and autos will have to be integrated to ensure the last mile connectivity.

Car usage is highly subsidised. Cars pay a minuscule amount as a one-time road tax while buses pay much higher amount annually. More- over, parking is free in most parts of the city or is minimally priced in commercial areas. As a result, cars are aggressively encroaching upon the scarce and limited urban space that can have other more important uses. The increase in the number of cars creates an additional annual demand for land for parking—as large as 471 football fields a year.

Delhi Master Plan 2021 has adopted norms for transit-oriented development to bring people closer to Metro line and encourage walking and cycling to reduce travel distances and pollution. But this is yet to take off. There are proposals to redesign the roads for non-motorised transport users but this has not been implemented. Roads are being designed to give priority to seamless movement of vehicles through flyovers and signal-free roads. This is compromising safe access and discouraging public transport. Short, walkable distances are getting converted into motorised trips. Enormous pollution load is getting locked into the urban infrastructure that cannot be easily undone. Delhi has built more roads and flyovers than any other city and still remains gridlocked and most polluted.


Fires at landfill sites, bonfires using roadside garbage as fuel need to be checked

The sale of pollution masks went
through the roof in Delhi in the
week following Diwali due to
dense smog and haze (Photo: Arnab Pratim Dutta)

Large-scale fires plague Delhi’s three landfill sites—Bhalaswa, Okhla and Ghazipur—round the year. These are “processing sites” for the entire waste of Delhi—about 10,000 tonnes a day. The unsegregated waste, which includes liquid, organic and food waste, decomposes, releasing methane, a highly combustible and greenhouse gas. The figure in the winter months is 5 per cent. There are also numerous dispersed fires lit by the homeless, pavement dwellers and security guards for warmth and light during winter nights. These fires add to the pollution load in the air. The IIT-K study says burning of municipal solid waste (MSW) contributes to 3 per cent of the city’s total particulate load.

Even though there is a ban on open burning it is not easy to enforce. In 2016, the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) called upon the civic authorities to ensure that burning of horticulture waste in parks does not occur, and instead compost pits are used to dispose of dead leaves and branches. But there has been poor enforcement. Similarly, the government is supposed to formulate emergency plans to deal with fires at landfill sites, but they do not exist. Individual residents and resident welfare associations (RWAs) also have a key role to play. RWAs must ensure that arrangements are made for security guards to protect themselves against the cold. People can segregate and recycle garbage to stop fires in neighbourhoods.


Farmers burn crop residue because they do not see economic value in the straw

Farmers in Punjab and Haryana
burn 90-95 per cent of the 32
million tonnes of paddy stubble
left in the fields (Photo: Vikas Choudhary)

Burning of crop residues in Haryana, Punjab and the northern plains of Uttar Pradesh is responsible for 12-25 per cent of particulate load in Delhi. But it poses a greater risk during the harvest periods of October-November and April-May.

Besides, the burning of crop residues has emerged as a source of air pollution only during the last 20 years. Following the Green Revolution, farmers in these regions shifted from traditional crops to paddy and used mechanised implements for cultivation, sowing and harvesting. But mechanised harvesting has a downside: it leaves behind 6-15 cm tall stubble in the field which has no economic value for the farmer. To clear the field for the next crop, farmers usually set fire to it. In Punjab and Haryana, farmers burn 90-95 per cent of the 32 million tonnes of paddy stubble left in the fields, shows data submitted to EPCA by the Punjab and Haryana administrations.

To dissuade people from burning crop residues, last year the Punjab and Haryana governments notified crop burning as an offence and launched awareness campaigns. They also provide subsidies on machines that mix straw with soil while tilling and drilling seeds. But these have made little impact on the ground.

The dense smog in Delhi has also caught the attention of the Delhi high court, the Supreme Court and NGT this year. Both NGT and the high court have asked the Union and state governments to provide machines for removal of agricultural residues to the farmers of Punjab and Haryana. But the situation is unlikely to change unless viable alternatives for utilising the paddy straw are provided to farmers. One such alternative is promoting power plants that use straw and other biomass as raw materials.


It is urgent to shift from coal to cleaner fuels and new technologies

There are 16 thermal power plants in the airshed of Delhi-NCR which generate electricity for Delhi and various cities in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. These plants are the major sources of NOx, SOx and particulate load. The IIT-K study says these power plants, along with industrial pollution, are responsible for 11 per cent of the city’s PM2.5 emission and 52 per cent of the NOx emission.

About nine of these power plants are coal-fired. These use antiquated technology, low-grade coals with high sulphur content and follow outdated emission norms. There was no standard in place for SO2, NOx and mercury emissions for these power plants till December 2015. Though the new stringent norms limit the concentration of particulate matter to 30 µg/m3 and that of SO2 and NOx to 100 µg/m3, these will be followed by power plants commissioned after January 2017.

Coal-fuelled power plants also release high amounts of fly ash, which gets carried with winds and causes respiratory illnesses and skin irritation. Badarpur Thermal Power Station is the single largest source of NOx and fly ash in Delhi, says the IIT-K study.

Fly ash pond of the 43-year-old plant, one of the oldest in the country, spans 362 hectares—larger than the area over which the plant has been built. It is surrounded by densely-populated residential areas. The plant should be shut immediately.

The Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) shifted the worst polluting industries to adjoining towns, such as Ghaziabad, Noida, Faridabad and Baghpat, in the late 1990s. But pollutants from these industries blow into the city. Anand Vihar at the border records very high pollution. Many heavy engineering, oil processing and waste management industrial units in Ghaziabad and Sahibabad area are contributing to this trend.

There are hundreds of small- and micro-industries, such as plastic moulding factories and electroplating units, which operate in densely populated slums and unauthorised colonies. Since they operate illegally, their emissions remain unaccounted. Though highly-polluting furnace oil is banned, industries continue to use it.

It’s time the government took all these factors into consideration for cleaning up the city’s air. To begin with, it must shut all coal-fired power plants and industries, or shift them to cleaner fuels.


India is on a building spree, but norms to control dust pollution are lax

More than 60 per cent of buildings that will stand in India in 2030 are yet to be built. Delhi and the NCR are already experiencing prolific construction. These, along with road and Metro-line construction, whip up enormous concrete dust. DPCC is responsible for ensuring that all construction projects meet the dust pollution norms as laid down by CPCB. However, EPCA says enforcement has been lax and must be made stringent. EPCA has developed an accountability mechanism so that it can identify the agency and actions that have been taken to check pollution from construction activities.

It has also developed a guidance note for inspection of such sites, which will assist in inspections and improve enforcement. It has also prepared a mobile app, Hawa Badlo, to identify agencies responsible for checking pollution from construction activities and MSW burning. The app, which is publicly available on iOS and Android phones, will also help monitor actions taken to curb pollution and has the scope to include other pollution-linked violations. To reduce the load of construction and demolition (C&D) waste, the Union environment ministry has introduced Construction and Demolition Waste Management Rules, 2016, which requires the construction industry to recycle and reuse C&D waste. An estimate by CSE shows that the country generates 530 million tonnes of C&D waste a year.


Government needs to formulate a graded emergency action plan to curb pollution

Health emergency demands emergency action. Last winter, the Delhi government had introduced first ever emergency measure of odd-even road rationing system. This slowed down the peaking of pollution. But this year, while announcing a slew of measures to curb the alarming pollution level, the Arvind Kejriwal government shied away from the odd-even scheme.

Its emergency measures, announced on November 6, include shutting of schools for three days, closing the Badarpur power plant for five days, halting all construction activities for 10 days, sprinkling water on roads and vacuum cleaning them every week, imposing fines on responsible officials, and banning leaf burning, diesel generators and fly ash transport. The government also advised the residents to stay indoors.

The government needs to frame a clear emergency action plan. Pollution control measures require stringent enforcement and must kick in whenever such episodes of pollution grip Delhi. Vehicles restraint plans must be included in the emergency plan. On November 8, the Supreme Court, responding to the health emergency, directed CPCB to firm up a proper graded emergency action plan according to the pollution levels.

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