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‘The fight against air pollution shouldn’t be just Delhi-centric’

  • Schemes like odd-even are temporary and don’t work so well in the long run, especially when you don’t have an alternative in place
  • We can’t solely pass on the blame of stubble burning onto the farmers. We need to incentivize the process

Sumit Sharma, director of the Earth Science and Climate Change division at The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri).
Sumit Sharma, director of the Earth Science and Climate Change division at The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri).

In 2014, a survey of 1,600 cities by the World Health Organization found Delhi had the dirtiest air. It’s been five years since the landmark report, but Delhi continues to top the league of dirty cities. A Greenpeace and AirVisual analysis of air pollution readings from 3,000 cities found that 22 of the world’s 30 worst cities in terms of air pollution were in India. Delhi, of course, was high up on the list. This year, between 29 October and 7 November, the dire predictions of all these surveys played out, as most of north India, including Delhi, came under an impenetrable blanket of smog. A public health emergency was declared, as the overall Air Quality Index (AQI) in the capital crossed the severe-plus mark (above 500), with some neighbourhoods even recording an AQI of over 1,000. “We can’t wake up only when the emergency is on our heads. We have to work round the year. The efforts shouldn’t just be Delhi-centric but should be pan-India as pollution is not just one city’s issue," says Sumit Sharma, director, earth science and climate change division, The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri). In 2016, Sharma had led a team of 25 researchers from 17 international institutes to write a report, ‘Breathing Cleaner Air’, which provided 10 scalable solutions for air quality improvement in India. He spoke to Mint about the project and the ways in which the Centre and states can fight air pollution together. Edited excerpts from the interview:

What were the solutions in the 2016 report?

This project was done at a time when India didn’t have a National Clean Air Programme (NCAP). The idea was not just to highlight the problem, but also to identify solutions that could make a difference to cities across India—not just Delhi or Mumbai. The first primary recommendation was to have a clean air mission for the whole country. This was incorporated by the government with the NCAP having been launched in January 2019. Also, we mentioned that the factors that contribute to pollution lie beyond the cities. For instance, in Delhi, almost 60% of the pollution is attributed to outside sources. Unless you address those, you will never be able to achieve air quality standard within the city. Second, you need to look beyond urban, to rural areas in the Gangetic plains as well, where people are toiling with terrible indoor air quality. And this is why you need a ‘national’ programme. The NCAP has set a target of cutting down air pollution by at least 20-30% by 2024.

According to Anumita Roy Chowdhury of the Centre for Science and Environment, vehicular pollution is 40% of the problem. What was your recommendation to tackle this?

We need to move toward the best of technologies — both in vehicles and in usage of fuels. Thankfully, in India, we are moving to the Euro 6 (or equivalent of Bharat Stage-VI) technology in vehicles after April 2020. India will probably be the first country in the world to be moving directly from Euro 4 to Euro 6, skipping Euro 5 altogether. That will help curb emissions in the long term. Second, since Independence, we have moved toward an inefficient way of travelling, both in passenger and freight modes. Our share of rail has gone down and road has gone up. We have to reverse this trend. There is a need to improve the share of rail-based transport mode by improving infrastructure and rationalization of tariffs. This will not only reduce emissions, but also save fuel.

A major issue is that neither is transportation integrated physically nor is there a uniform fare rationing. How can the public transport system be made more efficient?

Schemes like odd-even are temporary and don’t work so well in the long run, especially when you don’t have an alternative in place. One needs a good, safe, comfortable and economical public transportation system. In a city like Delhi, the required number of buses is as high as 10,000. But we have only 4,000. The infrastructure within the public transport sector needs to grow at a higher rate in order to negate the growth in population. Bus-based transportation system can be made more efficient — involve the private sector in this as well. All these solutions are needed if you want people to lessen the use of private vehicles.

Air pollution in northern India has been portrayed as a seasonal issue. But reports suggest that this is a year-round problem. Is there an integrated approach toward tackling the various sources of pollution?

Very true. We perceive smog as a problem restricted to November and January. But that is not the case. We feel it more in winters due to the meteorological conditions, which become adverse during this season. During summers, the particulate matter gets dispersed quickly. But even then, the AQI is not within the prescribed national limits. Don’t go by the look of the day—whether it seems clear or not. Take today (4 November), for instance: The sky looks blue, but the PM 2.5 levels are still as high as 200 micrograms per cubic metre. The standard is 60. Which means we need to create actual solutions that work throughout the year. When we worked on the source apportionment study for Delhi, we realized that 28% of the PM 2.5 concentrations are contributed by the transport sector (public, private and commercial), 30% by industries and power plants, and 15% by biomass burning throughout the year—both from agricultural fields and rural kitchens. Then 11% comes from other sources such as diesel generator sets, refuse burning, restaurants and crematoria, and about 17% from sources of dust like roads, construction, natural causes, etc, including 10% from international boundaries. But post-harvest season, for about two weeks between October and November, you will see a higher contribution of biomass burning to the emissions total — it goes up to 40%. This means, you need a two-pronged approach — one is to cut down the emission caused by agricultural burning in these two weeks, and the other is to work on the emissions created all-year round. We can’t solely pass on the blame of stubble burning onto the farmers. We need to incentivize the process. Say, the governments buy the stubble at a fair rate, use it to make energy, and then pass on the rewards to farmers, aggregators and others involved.

How can we regulate industrial emissions?

India is a transitioning developing economy. Coal has always been used in power plants and it is difficult to get rid of it immediately due to economic reasons. But one can control the air pollutant emissions from power plants and industries. Today, tail pipe treatment technologies exist. We must push its usage through stringent enforcement of law and enforce penalties for violations. Also, wherever gas is available, the authorities can ask the industries to switch to that. We need to grow as an economy, but we also need to be sustainable in our growth.

Are there lessons from other countries that India could adopt?

So many countries and cities have faced this problem in their “development" phase—London in 1952, Los Angeles in the 1950s, Tokyo in the 1950s and ‘60s. But the authorities in each of these cities realized the health impact and the huge economic cost of air pollution and started putting measures in place. The US took the technological route. So, the economy kept growing but the emissions didn’t. Take California alone, there has been a huge increase in the number of vehicles and diesel consumption, but the emissions have gone down by 80% in spite of that. They have been able to delink their economic growth patterns from the emissions. That is what we need to learn. In Europe, countries have opted for the “management" route. Whenever they identified a pocket in the city showing high pollution levels, they created low emission zones. They introduced congestion pricing—if you add to the pollution, you pay a price for it. In such zones, only electrical or non-motorized transportation is allowed. Coming to Beijing, the government set up air quality control districts—it was not just controlling the levels in the city, but was regulating the air quality in a big region around Beijing in one go. So, if the government wants to control pollution levels in Delhi, try and include the entire NCR and neighbouring cities. Why do we have the odd-even scheme and other fuel control only in Delhi? The minute you extend these to Gurgaon, Faridabad and Ghaziabad, one will see greater benefit to Delhi and other cities.

Is there a model in which the central and state governments can work together?

In China and the US, respective agencies from different states were brought together within an air quality control district (AQCD). So, in our case, a task force can be created, involving high level state governments officials of Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. The task force can take a consensus-based decision, which can be implemented across the AQCD.

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