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Published on Apr 10, 2020
Why Delhi’s air pollution mission is in need of bipartisan politics

The Arvind Kejriwal led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which won a back-to-back electoral landslide has announced a series of measures to address Delhi’s pressing urban woes. One of them is the issue of air pollution in the national capital. It may be noted that when AAP took the mantle to govern Delhi in 2015, Delhi’s air quality was categorized as worst in the world and there was no noticeable progress on the same after the government completed its tenure in 2020. Unsurprisingly, air pollution formed a key priority area in AAP government’s governance agenda for the next five years. The AAP government unveiled a 42-point air pollution action plan promising to bring out a steady stream of policy actions to reduce air pollution. The action plan aims at controlling the pollution levels by introducing a number of changes in the already present public transportation to the introduction of green reforms in Delhi’s landscapes. This analysis piece takes a quick stock taking of relevant measures that the AAP government initiated during its eventful tenure (2015-2020) to contain air pollution and how the recent government proposals align (or overlap) with past measures.

Reforming Urban Transportation

To deal with the problem of hazardous air quality, the AAP government in 2015 announced a series of steps towards improving urban transport system. With vehicular pollution being the major issue in Delhi with up to 30% of particulate pollution, AAP government proposed to run more buses, restrict movement of trucks in the city, and introduce cleaner fuels for all vehicles. With around 5000 buses against the requirement of 15000, the AAP government announced to acquire as many as 5000 new buses and allow private operators to run 800 cluster buses to improve public transport.

The government also proposed to start the work for fourth phase of Delhi Metro and create a Unified Transport Authority to overhaul city’s public transport governance. With regard to restricting the movement of trucks into national capital, Delhi government in coordination with the Centre took the decision to build eastern and western peripheral apart from the mandatory Radio Frequency Identification tags for such vehicles. Significantly, the government promoted ‘E-vehicle policy’ to mitigate environmental degradation occurring due to particulate emissions. Under this scheme, the Delhi government aims to introduce about 35,000 electric two, three and four wheelers and buses, 1,000 electric vehicles for last mile deliveries with various public charging or swapping stations in Delhi. 

Curbing Dust Pollution 

As it is well known road dust remains the second biggest (18-38%) source for air pollution in Delhi. This is further aided by construction activities, burning of leaves, coal, petrol and diesel. While the AAP government has tried to halt construction activities in Delhi from time to time depending on severity of pollution apart from imposing fines on violators, the government has tried to walk a tight rope between development and environment. However, the important decision the Delhi government took (albeit at the direction of National Green Tribunal) was the mechanized sweeping of the roads in collaboration with the municipal bodies (MCDs) to reduce quantum of road dust. This apart, the AAP government in 2018 launched an anti-smog gun campaign to settle the dust on PWDs roads and at all larger construction sites

At the same time, the AAP government also imposed restrictions on burning of leaves and garbage within or around the city peripheries. To keep a strong vigilante on garbage burning in Delhi, the AAP government took a novel step to appoint Environment Marshalls. To combat rising Air Quality Index (AQI), the AAP government completely banned the use of coal-fired power generation in Delhi. This helped the city to become the only region in India with no coal-based power plant.

Expanding Green Coverage

Since 2015, the AAP government has considerably invested in improving national capital’s green cover. Between 2015 and 2017, the green cover increased around 1,100 hectares from 20.2% in 2015 to 20.6%. Under the same drive, the AAP-led Delhi government planted 32 lakh trees out of which 5 lakh trees were planted in a single day with the help of a plantation drive. Further, the AAP-led government has set out a plantation target of distributing 425000 free saplings during 2019-20 with the active involvement of local residents, resident welfare associations, market associations, and school and college students.

New Initiatives by the AAP 2.0

In the run-up to 2020 assembly elections, the AAP’s election manifesto promised that if elected the party would bring down air pollution level by two-third. After getting re-elected, the party has gone on to pledge to plant as much as 20 million trees for a greener Delhi and make the national capital garbage-free city by 2025. With an intention to catch up with lost time, the AAP government in its recent budget has made an allocation of Rs 1,100 crore to buy fleet of new buses for the year 2020-21.

In terms of long term strategy to curb air pollution, the AAP government has proposed to come up with three-level action plan- five-year plan, one-year plan and winter plan to fight air pollution. The government hinted that outdoor construction in Delhi  (that would significantly limit lorries to city) would be complete by October this year. Similarly, the government also plans to come up with a 20-point list of actions residents can take to reduce air pollution, turning the efforts into a mass movement. The AAP government in collaboration with Washington University has initiated the real-time source apportionment study to obtain data on real-time concentrations from different sources of pollution. Another notable step the government took in collaboration with IIT Delhi and IIT Bombay was to install country’s first smog tower to curb air pollution.

A Reality Check

While the AAP government showed enthusiasm and proposed many initiatives including 42-point plan to curb air pollution in 2015, by the end of their tenure many of these promises remained mostly on paper. For instance, while the government was quick to announce its determination to acquire a fleet of 5000 new buses, only closer to elections that the government acquired 104 low floor buses. As has been extensively reported, a combination of delay in tenders, shortage of land for bus depots and importantly frequent disputes between Delhi Development Authority and the AAP government halted the progress in acquiring new buses. It’s performance with regard to last-mile connectivity too remained suboptimal as it never received high priority in government’s reform agenda. Only recognizable measures to tackle air pollution have been the promotion of e-vehicles particularly battery run rickshaws, mechanized sweeping of roads and the odd-even scheme during peak pollution seasons.

Further, despite being the elected government and having the power to implement and execute policies on garbage disposal and checking landfill fires, the AAP’s record remained uninspiring.  Delhi’s air quality index remaining in ‘severe’ category for most parts of 2015-2019 is a clear testimony to policy failure. Of course, being a national capital territory where governance and responsibilities are shared among several bodies including Union government, MCD, Delhi government, the latter cannot be solely blamed for failure to curb air pollution. Yet, on its exclusive domains such as public transportation, the AAP government was found missing in action for much of its tenure.

Way Forward 

Tackling the ‘severe’ problem of air pollution requires a multilateral approach. Union government should work with the State governments to tackle the problem of air pollution in Delhi. While the Union government’s Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) launched in 2018 to tackle air pollution in National Capital Region is an important intervention, yet its applicability is restricted to peak pollution only.

From its own end, the AAP government should strengthen the finance and equipment requirements of the pollution control agencies to help to deal with the problem of air pollution in the capital.Further, the AAP government should accelerate matters that are directly under its control such as improving public transport facilities in Delhi and last mile connectivity. A massive investment in public transport is required so that urban residents reduce their reliance on personal vehicles. Government should also encourage walking and cycling by constructing proper paths for pedestrians and cyclists. Importantly, it should explore possible areas of cooperation and collaboration with MCDs on common issues of collection of garbage, waste segregation, disposal, etc.

Finally, with external factors involved in accentuating the level of air pollution particularly seasonal stubble burning in the neighbouring states, Delhi has to work in tandem with these states and must get the federal government on board to play its vital part in bringing solution. From providing financial support to neighbouring states to discourage farmers from burning stubble to investing in infrastructure and regulation, the Union government has a critical role in the collective fight against air pollution. It is here the AAP government has to forego its political gains and build bridges with different politico-administrative actors to build collective stake on air pollution. This cannot be fought and won alone. Mr Kejriwal’s apparent post-elections change of approach in dealing with its archrival the Bharatiya Janata Party augurs well for national capital’s fight against air pollution.

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