Expert Speak Terra Nova
Published on Nov 15, 2018
Delhi’s toxic air: Anyone responsible? The Delhi smog first hit the international headlines in 2010 when two Indian cities -- Delhi and Agra -- made its maiden entry in the WHO list of top 10 most polluted cities of world. At that time,  Chief Minister Sheila Dixit claimed that the city had no pollution measuring equipment. By 2016, India had all the needed pollution measuring devices. Yet, cities of north India claimed all the 10 top spots in the WHO air pollution list that year, as China started its cleaning up act. This is the eighth year running, and once again, Delhi NCR failed to keep air pollution under check on and around Deepavali. This time, there were two sets of data given, one by the pollution board CPCB and one by SAFAR, the Government’s pollution research body, that differed widely from each other. They were supposedly using two methods of evaluation at different locations  and were giving distinctly different results. This added to the multiplicity of data causing confusion. The SAFAR data quoted in The Pioneer showed that the AQI post Deepawali in 2018 was in severe plus emergency category at 642, around 1.7 times the AQI of 367 recorded on the day after Deepawali in 2017 and nearly 1.5 times that recorded in 2016 which was 425. The CPCB data quoted in The Times of India and Mint showed that the AQI at 390 this year was marginally better than the last two years on the day after Diwali.

Data shows that maximum  crackers burst for six hours, not two

As per the CPCB data, quoted in The Times of India, the particulate matter concentrate in Delhi this year peaked at 1 am on early morning of the 8 November following a less than boisterous Deepavali. The particulate matter of PM2,5 rose to 1560 while the particulate matter of PM 10 size rose to 1859 which was over 6 times the particulate matter found at 4pm the previous evening, before the Diwali crackers started bursting. This surge happened despite the Supreme Court ban on bursting of crackers after 10 pm. The PM concentrates which was below 400 in the evening doubled by 10 PM and further doubled by 1 PM in the night as per CPCB. The data clearly shows a meteoric rise and indicates that Delhiites burst maximum crackers for 6 hours from 7 PM to 1AM and not for two hours between 8PM to 10PM as mandated by the Apex Court. The average AQI levels are usually recoded for a 24-hour period. While the 6 AM to 6 AM average AQI data of CPCB showed that this year air pollution was worse than last year, the 4 PM to 4 PM data showed that this year air pollution was lower than last year. The truth is that pollution levels did not differ despite the Supreme Court ban. The only difference was that the crackers started bursting late this year in comparison to last year and hence the average AQI was lower before and higher later. Even looking at the 4 PM to 4 PM data we find that the average AQI recorded by CPCB was recorded at 390 this year against 403 in 2017 and 445 in 2016 and 360 in 2015, all in the very poor and severe category.

Accountability missing as GRAP fails again

So clearly, what the pollution boards were recommending and what the Governments have been  doing has not been working. Citizens of Delhi have been callous and irresponsible and policing has been ineffective. But sadly, despite such monumental and apparent failures, heads do not roll in a government set up. In the last eight years, the Congress government at the Centre and State has been replaced by the BJP at the Centre and AAP at the State level. But the approach to problem solving has been equally mindless. It is called “putting the ball in the other man’s court” in the  language of government officers. The city government points fingers at three neighbouring States saying that they are to blame. Period. The Delhi politicians do this finger pointing most vociferously and the scientists who work like an ineffective bureaucracy at the CPCB and SAFAR crow in unison. They forget that crop burning in Punjab and Haryana  have been going on for more than 50 years, ever since multiple cropping became vogue. This because the  burnt roots or saplings are believed to provide nutrients like phosphorous and sulphur in the soil, beneficial to the next crop free of cost. The smog has been a problem only in this decade by comparison, and reasons are possible more in-house, than with the neighbouring States of Delhi. A cursory look at the CPCB recommended Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) shows how bad and half hearted is India’s approach to curb air pollution. The concept of the graded action scheme approved and monitored by the administration and the judiciary, namely the Environment Ministry, the Delhi Government and Supreme Court, is to act only after crisis occurs. Nobody is thinking of permanent long term solutions to eradicate air pollution like China. They are only designing a system that will act only once a crisis level is reached. There is no corrective actions like replacing coal by gas in energy plants or replacing diesel buses with electric buses. The only action is stopping commercial activities like the entry of trucks, or construction activities or the operating of coal power plants. Pollution is permitted and tolerated till the increasingly poor level are reached. According to the  Graded Response Action Plan, if the danger levels have not been breached, nobody needs to take action.  Besides, the GRAP is to be monitored by 16 Government agencies in four States and Union Territories, including municipal corporations, police departments and pollution boards. So, it is nobody’s baby and doomed to fail. It is Delhi’s air pollution  broth with too many cooks and nobody responsible for its success or failure. So citizen’s suffer. Most elderly citizens have lung and asthma problems and a new generation of children are growing up with reduced lung capability and permanent respiratory ailments.

Switching from coal to gas alone will reduce pollution permanently

In 2015, China decided to act on pollution and reduced the intake of petcoke and coal and increased the use of gas. They had a single point strategy and took just six months to shut down coal use in factories and home boilers and convert them to gas. Within one year, Chinese  cities became cleaner. India muddled along a multi-pronged strategy with maximum funds being given to stop crop burning. It was a great way to continue business as usual for Indian scientists, politicians and bureaucracy for it would lead to no result, but increased pumping of tax payers money in an area where nobody would be ever held accountable. Gas usage reduced during the past five years as per Petroleum Ministry data while coal production rose YOY 10% as per Coal Ministry  to touch 661 MMT annually. Meanwhile, the  production of natural gas declined sharply from 52,219 MMSCM in 2010-11 to  31,897 MMSCM in 2016-17. Similar was the case with coal and gas imports where coal imports rose while gas imports fell. So during the last three years while China attempted to switch over from coal to gas, India started to use more coal and less of gas. Delhi, the national capital which has a sizeable gas power capacity of 1500 MW, has kept the plants at Bawana and Indraprastha partially idle due to shortage of gas. The 1200 MW Bawana plant built at a cost of over Rs 5000 crore has never operated at more than 30% capacity because it has no gas supply agreement with GAIL to operate at full capacity. Local gas is just not available and imported gas is too expensive, especially if you do not consider the health cost of the citizens. So the plant has never produced more than 400 MW electricity though the tax payer paid to install a 1200 MW unit. Worse, thousands of small factories in the dozen strong Delhi NCR industrial areas operate on coal. Some of them even use petcoke which is 17 times more polluting than coal and is officially banned in Delhi NCR. Bans are routinely flouted in India as inspection is lax and it is easy and cheap to bribe the inspecting officers. But since the Supreme Court has refused a blanket ban on the imports of petcoke, it’s imports have doubled from 5.81MMT in 2014-15 to 11.13 MMT in 2016-17 showing that the use of this toxic fuel with a high calorific value is on the rise. As a matter of fact, Delhi’s toxic future has now expanded to engulf the entire Indo Gangetic and north India as India’s use of natural gas falls and it  uses more and more dirty fuel.


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Sandip Sen

Sandip Sen

Sandip Sen is an author and journalist writing on a vast range of subjects from economy to technology environment to lifestyle. He is a regular ...

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