The wee hours of a smoggy January morning in Delhi will find you trying to navigate your vehicle through gigantic convoys of lorries, trucks and even 18-wheelers! They grumble as they snake their way into the capital of India each night, hiccupping toxic diesel smoke. These variants of “Horn(s)-OK-Please” exit the city early next morning so if you travel during office hours, Delhi is sans their physical presence but is still weighed down with the burped-out, sinking winter air which shrouds the capital with the resultant tight smog.
Clearly, these are the major sources of vehicular air pollution in Delhi. IIT Kanpur’s Draft Report commissioned by the Delhi Government in 2013, on the sources of particulate matter, also found that out of all vehicles in the capital (which overall contribute to 20% of PM-2.5 concentration, i.e., particulates of 2.5 microns or lesser, more fatal than PM-10 because they can go deeper into the lungs), trucks and two-wheelers contribute to 80% of the vehicular pollution. These lorries are the foremost reason of lending Delhi the grim distinction of surpassing even Beijing in terms of pollution levels, as per the World Health Organization’s Ambient (Outdoor) Air Pollution Database 2014.
Air pollution is now a global public health problem, labelled by WHO as the “world’s single largest environmental health risk” with 7 million deaths caused globally in 2012 (one in every eight people dying) been linked to air pollution. In India alone, the Lancet reports (based on Global Burden of Disease Study 2010) that already an estimated 1.5 million people die annually, about one-sixth of all Indian deaths, as a result of both outdoor and indoor air pollution. We also possess the world’s highest death rate from chronic respiratory diseases and more deaths from asthma than any other nation.
Further, more than half of our population (660 million) lives in areas where the NAAQS (National Ambient Air Quality Standards for PM) are miserably defied and they would gain an average of 3.2 years of life expectancy (on average for a total of 2.1 billion life years) if air quality were improved to meet national standards. This is despite the fact that the NAAQS norms are agonizingly slack, lenient and sloppy when compared to those recommended by the WHO (Air Quality Guidelines of 2005) and even other nations. Thus, if the stricter WHO guidelines were used as benchmark, about 99.5%, i.e., nearly every Indian lives in a region with poor air quality. Notwithstanding our laidback standards, we are unable meet even those.
In WHO’s 2014 study it found India home to 13 out of the 20 cities with the world’s most polluted air, reporting that while the world’s annual mean of PM-10 is 71 µg/cum, India’s is 134 and Delhi’s 286. These cities include Gwalior, Raipur, Ahmedabad, Lucknow Kanpur, Amritsar, Ludhiana, Allahabad, Agra, Jodhpur, Dehradun, Chandrapur, etc. What adds insult to injury is the fact that the situation may in fact be worse due to faulty measuring instruments, data fudging and lack of regulation allowing several industries to pollute with impunity. At least theoretically, every Indian city is supposed to continuously measure air quality but State Governments are slow to enforce central orders, while the Central Pollution Control Board, India’s leading environmental agency, does little.
Further, to rub salt in the wound, the air-quality monitoring mechanisms in India seem to present an ideal example of too many cooks enabling the spewing of a toxic broth! The Central Pollution Control Board executes the National Air Quality Monitoring Programme (NAMP), the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute runs the National Clean Air Mission while in addition to the NAAQS, India now has a National Air Quality Index (AQI) since October 2014. Further, we have State Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Programs (SAMPs) and Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations (CAAQMs). The Environmental Data Bank finds itself a proud mention in the 2013-14 Annual Report of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change while the website is at worst dysfunctional and at best inefficacious to serve its purpose. The CAAQM stations can hardly be called continuous for they present scanty information from selected points and not for all parameters, PM levels being particularly conspicuous with their absence. Most recently, the Ministry of Earth Sciences and the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune launched SAFAR on 17 February 2015 [System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research], a mobile app which provides location-specific, real-time information giving current air quality data as well as the forecast for the next four days for Delhi, Mumbai and Pune. Notwithstanding this multiplicity and jumble of regulators/monitors/norms, the last available air-quality data on the CPCB website is still for the year 2006.
It is in the context of such a worrisome situation that India, particularly Delhi, faces on the front of air pollution, that the Delhi Government launched the much discussed and debated odd-even policy in the first fortnight of January, with the stated objective of reducing air pollution during Delhi’s worst smoggy days. The scheme entailed allowing usage of cars ending with odd numbers on odd dates and with even numbers on even dates, between 8a.m. to 8 p.m., exempting the two-wheelers. But the questions worth asking now are: how far has this policy really been effective in reducing the severe pollution levels and was it just a political stunt on part of Mr. Kejriwal?
What definitely deserves to be lauded herein is the Delhi Government’s spirit of experimentation. Further, it is much unprecedented and in fact, a rare and unusual sight in India to be seeing a new and perceptibly burdensome regulation being followed willingly in the manner that this one was in Delhi, by citizens and tourists alike. Thus, the threshold amount of civic solidarity created and the awareness raised about the air-pollution problem among most crucial stakeholders, needs to be appreciated. Much to the relief of Delhiites, the policy served to decongest the roads which is a significant gain, even if not part of the stated purpose.
However, as to whether the pollution levels were indeed reduced is a question with answers not very clear, with many right lessons that can be learnt from the trial. Vehicle ownership in India is projected to hit 400 million by 2040 from the current 170 million, where Delhi alone has 90 lakh registered vehicles, with 1500 being added every day. Undoubtedly, vehicles are significant trouble, pollution-wise, but of these the contribution of four-wheelers to air pollution in Delhi is just 2%, with trucks, lorries and two-wheelers instead being the major culprits but unfortunately exempted, the latter by policy and the former by dint of the operational timings of the trial. Thus, the impact of the policy in reducing pollution levels seems minuscule, at best and zilch, at worst (given other factors like exemptions, weather, wind speed, increased moisture, construction dust, industrial emissions, burning of organic material to keep warm, etc.: all necessary additional compounding influences on air pollution).
No credible data also seems to support the Delhi Government’s claim that the trial will bring about improved air quality by reducing pollution. Much to the contrary, the National AQI data showed that the quality of air in the first week of January was much worse compared to previous weeks. “Mere restrictions on car usages, that too without taking proper stock of the current public-transport facilities available in Delhi, can only be one among a bouquet of measures needed on part of the Delhi Government to bring down pollution,” says Pranav Berk, a Delhiite. This is in fact true as what Delhi also needs is controls on industry, construction and power-plants in its vicinity, etc. as a part of responding on multiple fronts. Pranav goes on to aver that “it may or may not be a political stunt but the need of the hour is to depoliticize the debate so as to enable a proper evaluation, may be by econometric methods.”
Sahil Raveen, another Delhi resident, emphasized the insufficiency of autorickshaws, questioned the inefficiency of the Metro services (in terms of possibility of trains with more carriages running faster with greater frequency) coupled with overburdened bus services. He mentions that “we also need to look into collective action on the part of corporates based in Delhi, how they can voluntarily consider having different operational timings, to enable employees to use public transport better and help decongest as well as bring down pollution.” When asked whether Sahil would regard the move as a political ploy, he remarks that it definitely gathered a lot of political attention.
Some people also believe that the policy was perhaps brought in by the AAP Government to give the impression that they are not silent on environmental matters and that they still remember Point 49 of their 70 point manifesto.
While the freedom to choose one’s own mode of transport was definitely hampered, a resident of Hauz Khas has to say that “the policy has forced a lot of people to be aware of their privileged positions. It also has been a good move for the CM, politically. Most importantly, it’s a great start. Today it’s a small symbolic policy. Tomorrow, it maybe a big legislation.
Notwithstanding the pro’s and con’s of the odd-even policy, it at least shows the ability of a government to take bold steps, which has the populist base to be able to convince people to own-up these measures and bring about a much-needed behavioral change. Even if it made a tiny contribution, more symbolic than actual, it is a good sign that the need to bring pollution issues to the fore is being felt. Three major issues plague the current regime dealing with air-pollution in India: lackluster implementation (there must be increased and more efficient monitoring), no transparent and continuous sharing of data and finally, lax standards (which need to be brought at par with global norms or at least those of better performing nations).
Thus, keeping in mind the overall situation of air-pollution in India, there is a most urgent need to look at the more frightful big-picture and not just focus on specific polluters. Being a citizen of a country with a rich environmental jurisprudence is of no avail, unless India’s environmental regulators and others at the high echelons of power fail to perform basic monitoring effectively or disappoint by setting abysmally lax air-quality standards. We breathe poison with well-acknowledged fatal health effects and this seems to be the situation because of (and not despite) the several programmes/bodies/authorities, etc. functioning to curb the menace of Air Pollution in India. In this light, policies such as the odd-even trial help bring crucial issues to the fore and can help catalyze future positive changes. Despite its drawbacks, the policy doesn’t deserve dismissal but only constructive criticism to help improvise it into something more beneficial.
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