21st Century faux pas

The people have to take a back seat if the government indulges in cosmetic measures to combat air pollution

Published: Wednesday 31 December 1997

Does public opinion count in India? Considering the alacrity with which the Union minister for environment and forests, Saifuddin Soz, first promised and then took out a white paper on pollution, one would be led to believe it does. This was done following media reports on the criticism made by the Centre for Science and Environment ( cse ), that the government has no composite action plan to combat air pollution.

On November 1, cse had announced at a public meeting that the number of deaths and illnesses due to declining urban air quality have increased dramatically in just three years, and, blamed the government for gross inaction and lack of a composite strategy for controlling the problem of air pollution.

On November 5, Saifuddin Soz, reacting to media reports on the cse meeting, denied charges that his ministry did not have a holistic perspective on the issue and made the dramatic announcement that the government was working on a white paper on pollution which would be made available to the public soon.

And so Soz unveiled the white paper on pollution in Delhi with an action plan to be implemented from December 2. Public opinion, after all, can spur the government to action. Ever since Soz came to hold the cabinet berth for environment and forests he got his officials busy drafting an action plan to control pollution in Delhi and set deadlines for each action proposed. It is another matter that he missed his deadline of finalising the draft action plan by August this year, as originally planned.

Pollution resulting from vehicular emissions tops the agenda of the 10-point action plan announced by Soz, followed by issues as diverse as water pollution, solid waste management, industrial pollution and noise pollution. According to the white paper, the relative contribution of industries and domestic sources in the air pollution load of Delhi has been steadily declining since 1970, but the contribution of automobile emissions has increased dramatically. The contribution of industries to the total pollution load, for instance, has gone down from 56 per cent in 1970-71 to 29 per cent in 1990-91, and the contribution of domestic sources has declined from 21 per cent to eight per cent during the same period. But the contribution of vehicles has increased from 21 per cent in 1970-71 to 64 per cent in 1990-91. Even more dire is the forecast that the share of vehicular emissions in the pollution load of Delhi is likely to increase to 72 per cent by the year 2000-01.

Justifiably, the agenda to control vehicular pollution should be given priority in Delhi. But the white paper -- far from being an innovative approach to air quality planning -- is, at best, a good documentation of all measures contemplated or enforced by the government so far.

Without giving much thought to anything, the highest environment planning body in India has taken on itself what the Delhi state government should be doing in any case. So the action plan proposes measures on traffic planning and management aimed at decongestion of roads by December 1998; improvement of road infrastructure and bicycle tracks by April 1999; restriction on heavy traffic by December 1997; implementation of the mass rapid transport system ( mrts ) by 2010; fixing a life span for all categories of vehicles by December 1997; further reduction of the quantity of sulphur in diesel by 1999; improving the supply of compressed natural gas and promoting its use as an alternative fuel by December 1998; and, curbing adulteration of fuel.

No doubt what Soz's ministry is proposing will definitely help to provide a framework for state-level transport planning. But apart from attempting to discipline the concerned ministries and regulatory bodies to do their tasks on time, the plan does little to correct the targets set for promoting low-emission technologies or improving fuel quality. The benchmark for improvement continues to be the mass emission standards notified for the year 2000 and the fuel specifications which will become fully operational by 1999. There has been enough discussion in past years on how inadequate these standards are to clean up the air adequately.

Soz has, however, been bold enough to put it on paper that in the absence of a technological breakthrough on the conventional two-stroke engine, the government should consider the phasing out of two-stroke engine two-wheelers and three-wheelers.

However, two announcements which otherwise do not figure in the action plan were made by the minister on the occasion of the release of the white paper and are significant. Soz proposes to constitute a national environment authority with more powers and set up an expert committee to advise and direct the Central Pollution Control Board on policy matters.

But creating multiple authorities with more powers may not help to meet the challenge of controlling vehicular pollution. Strong efforts are needed to build the planning and regulatory system on the foundation of good science and transparency.

Meanwhile, Soz should go ahead with moves like observing vehicle-free days in conjected areas from as early as January next year, especially, when his plan of action, schedules the deadlines for completion of the mrts and other transportation systems in the next century. Unfortunately, with the country now facing elections, the environment minister's plan and deadlines may go on a backburner.

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