Delhi’s Pollution Dilemma

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Delhi is now one of most polluted cities in the world (Image courtesy: pc-tablet.co.in)

The alarming levels of pollution in Delhi NCR are once again in the news. It is the same story every year around this time. A lot of concern, mostly affected, is on display by all concerned – politicians, administrators, environmentalists and social activists. Unfortunately the genuine concerns of common citizens are never addressed. Once the problem gets resolved, courtesy nature and its benevolent ways, everyone goes in hibernation as far as this subject is concerned till it happens again. While the problem is of our making to a large extent we fail to implement any solutions to correct the same.

Crop stubble burning in neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana is often quoted as the main reason for this dangerous increase in pollution levels. It is a fact that this adds to the problem but it is far from being the sole reason. For a region whose pollution levels generally hover near the dangerous limits, stubble burning only adds to the problem for a few weeks. So while there is a need to address the problem of stubble burning, it is even more important to find solutions for the generally high pollution levels faced by the region. This problem needs to be tackled in two parts – stubble burning to prevent huge spikes in pollution levels and other measures to control the levels within safe limits at all times.

Stubble Burning: 

A lot has been said and written about stubble burning and how the poor farmer has no other option in view of the extra costs involved in stubble management. The estimates of this ‘in situ’ stubble management range from Rs 2,000 to Rs 5,000 per acre that is projected as a prohibitive cost for the farmer. It may be so for marginal and small farmers but the same cannot be said for farmers with large holdings. Therefore there is no reason why large farms working primarily on mechanised farming do not adopt in situ stubble management. NITI Udyog has estimated that a comprehensive and permanent solution to this problem for all Northern states comprising of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh will cost about Rs 11,500 crores. This is not a large sum considering the costs that the nation and citizens have to spend on health and other fallouts of pollution. If one discounts larger farm holdings from government support, the cost will be even lesser.

It beats any reasoning as to why the states concerned and centre have not acted and controlled the problem by now. It does appear there is an ulterior motive on parts of the states as seen from statements of Chief Minister of Punjab. He believes that the only solution is to give a subsidy of Rs 5,000 per acre to each farmer so that he can manage the stubble. This is obviously a gimmick to seek votes. That is the irony of the whole issue. No one is concerned about health hazards being faced by citizens of Delhi or the states concerned. Votes certainly take priority for these leaders over health and resultant deaths of people. When they express concern over deaths of a few farmers in their state it is nothing but eyewash and just another ploy to seek subsidies. On top of this Punjab’s leader of opposition from the Aam Admi Party openly encouraged farmers to burn their stubble unless subsidies were given. For once the Chief Minister and Leader of Opposition in Punjab appear to be on the same page – unfortunately for all the wrong reasons.

Other Measures:

This is perhaps the more important part of controlling pollution in NCR. It is no secret that Delhi’s pollution levels hover close to dangerous mark for most of the year. Short term phenomenon like stubble burning only adds a spike for a few weeks at the best. Therefore a long term solution must look beyond stubble burning and address other sources of pollution. Automobiles, generators, construction activity, road dust, use of coal and wood for cooking, industrial smoke and other gaseous wastes, thermal power houses, garbage dumps, seasonal burning of leaves waste are some of the more prominent contributors to the overall pollution in the region. Unfortunately there is no sign of any comprehensive plan to regulate all these to achieve a better environment in the years to come. One only sees knee jerk incremental measures from time to time that have made no perceptible difference.

Successive Governments have dithered over a comprehensive automobile phase out policy and incentivising non polluting electric and hybrid vehicles in a meaningful manner. In fact it was surprising to see that hybrid and electrical vehicles were placed in the highest GST slab of 28%. The government certainly missed a trick here. Power situation in Delhi is more than satisfactory today while parts of NCR may still be facing some shortages. There is no reason why generators should still be in use in Delhi barring a few emergency or other essential services.  A lot of industry has already been relocated from congested areas of Delhi and therefore this sector may not be a serious contributor to pollution today. A similar exercise in other NCR regions may be necessary for long term goals. The shutting down of the last thermal power plant at Badarpur is planned for March 2018 and that should remove a major source of pollution. Rapid inroads in economically weaker households with provision of cooking gas have been made in last few years and it may be safe to assume that pollution due to open cooking on wood or coal would have reduced considerably.

The ever increasing construction activity is possibly the biggest contributor to pollution as far as suspended particles are concerned. Delhi roads, grounds and other open areas are always dusty. Delhi streets are swept manually using brooms where the swept dust is back on roads next day without fail. Construction activity adds tonnes of dust on a regular basis and the problem becomes more acute by the day. There is really no effective dust management methodology in place.  Mechanical sweepers with suction and water cleaning facility for roads have been talked about for decades but are still a rarity – primarily due to administrative apathy. Without a doubt it also has to do with votes since authorities would rather recruit thousands of safai karamcharis to boost an inefficient system instead of buying a few dozen vehicle based cleaning systems to improve efficiency.

Vehicles, read cars, are invariably the target for any measure connected with reduction of pollution. The reason is simple – a car after all is not Aam. Politically targeting what is not Aam kills not two but three birds with one stone. First it does not upset the Aam Admi Party’s two wheeler vote bank. Secondly it sends a message to Aam Admi that the rich are being targeted and that helps to consolidate Aam votes. Thirdly auto rickshaws get an opportunity to fleece citizens and that certainly is good for Aam votes. The fact that two wheelers pollute more than cars is totally ignored. Delhi government just wants to impress the Aam Admi by feigning seriousness and limiting their actions to odd even plan for cars. It is a pity that the government does not have a comprehensive time bound action plan in place that could be followed to overcome this serious problem.

Suggestions:

Is there a solution for the pollution mess in Delhi? Complex problems do not always warrant complex solutions provided the problem is broken down into its basic elements and each element addressed effectively. Working on this principle here is a ten point charter to work out a comprehensive plan:

  1. Rationalise the vehicle mix that operates in Delhi NCR for better traffic movement. Public transport should only be based on Electrical vehicles with a target date of March 2020. Low technology vehicles like the ones used under Gramin Seva must be discontinued.
  2. All cars above 20 years vintage and commercial vehicles above 18 years to be scrapped by 31 March 18. Scarp handling for discarded vehicles to be put in place at the earliest. By March 2020 Delhi should not have any vehicle more than 15 years old. For two wheelers start with 15 years and reach a level of 12 years by 2020.
  3. Restrict sale of new cars for next two years by imposing a surcharge of 20% for individuals and 30% for corporates. Electric cars should be exempted from this fee.
  4. There is a need for shifting to better grades of automotive fuels on priority.
  5. Consolidate current Metro Network and barring sections already under construction, no new construction to be allowed for next two years in Delhi. Extensions may however be planned in balance of NCR region to improve connectivity.
  6. Strict guidelines for all construction activity to be put in place with heavy penalties for violations. 
  7. Ban use of generators with immediate effect except for emergency and critical services.
  8. Shift to mechanical cleaning of all main roads in next 12 months and extend this to other roads in next two years. Manual cleaning must be limited to internal colony roads.
  9. There is an urgent need to rethink on creating huge garbage dumps and alternative technologies to be introduced for more efficient disposal. New incineration technologies offer very efficient solutions in this regard.
  10. Seasonal burning of leaves to be banned and alternative solution for compacting leaves waste to be implemented with an efficient collection system.

It is time Delhi’s pollution issue is taken more seriously. It is no more just a state problem; the centre too must step in and work in tandem with the state government. Politicians must not put citizen’s health at stake for the sake of a few votes. No nation can afford to develop a strong economy by sacrificing environment. We owe it to our future generations to leave a cleaner environment and ensure they follow suit. The aim should be to create an environment where environment does not need any protection.

Saroj Chadha, an engineering professional, is a successful entrepreneur. Having retired from the Indian Army after having served for over 23 years, he has also been a consultant for leading Indian and Multinational electrical companies. He lives in New Delhi.

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