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On February 10, the Supreme Court will hear a plea on Delhi’s worsening air pollution, on which much has been written of late. The capital city’s poor air quality is an urgent public health problem. But the prescription is not as simple as taking a pill and getting some rest.
The reason that India, China and other countries struggle with air pollution is that its sources are numerous and closely linked to economic activity. Effective policy on air pollution therefore has to act in coordination across many sectors, from industry and power to transport and even cooking, and without damaging the benefits these sectors bring to the economy. So what can policy do to address such a daunting problem?
First, one has to size things up by measuring the sources of air pollution. In 2011, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) published a source apportionment study of six cities. This study found nearly all cities in violation of the national ambient air quality standards for respirable particulate matter, and attributed this pollution to a mixture of industry, transport and environmental factors that varied city by city and even within cities, often with hotspots in industrial clusters or heavily trafficked locations.
While this was an important step, we believe environmental regulators could be doing more to measure the scope of the problem. India’s Central and State Pollution Control Boards should develop the capacity to run such studies in-house, and should do them frequently and widely across the country. Ground measurement of air quality should also be augmented by recent advances in the satellite measurement of pollution. Researchers at Yale University as well as IIT Delhi have used satellite data to reveal the startling fact that fine particulate pollution levels, owing to long-range transport by winds, is now high across much of the country. The costs of air pollution therefore, are being borne not just by those of us in the metros, but also by large sections of our rural population.
In addition, environmental regulators could also more effectively tackle industrial pollution if they had better information on who is emitting how much. Many industrial plants are tested by pollution control boards at best a couple of times a year, meaning that we know extraordinarily little about how much pollution a factory actually generates. With limited data, it also becomes difficult to identify and prosecute those who emit too much.
One bright spot is an effort by several state pollution control boards (SPCBs), including Gujarat, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, to use automated, digital pollution measuring devices (continuous emissions monitoring systems) to report emissions from factories in real time over the internet. Armed with this data, SPCBs could learn more about which plants are really responsible for air pollution emissions and target regulations accordingly. The CPCB has recently released India’s first official standards and guidelines for such technology. This innovation should be applauded, but it is equally important that we put these technologies to widespread use in the field.
Finally, data on air pollution — both on levels in the air and on emissions from individual sources such as power plants — must also be made transparently available to the public. Air quality rating programmes based on such data can inform the public, as well as put pressure on high polluters. High calibre information on air quality also allows people to take simple preventive actions that may have significant health benefits — for example, infants and toddlers could be kept indoors when it is highly polluted.
Yet, measurement is just the beginning. Unfortunately, in the case of cities like Delhi, better data alone will not do the job. Targeted policies across fuel, transport, power and industry are urgently needed. The low-hanging fruit in this regard is to begin by reducing the subsidies for diesel fuel and encouraging cleaner fuels such as natural gas or electricity. These subsidies have led to much higher use of diesel in transport than is economically efficient or environmentally sensible. Indeed, subsidised fuel is burned not just in Delhi’s rapidly growing population of diesel cars, but also in the thousands of diesel gensets that dot the National Capital Region. In the case of diesel power generation, the damage from subsidies is two-fold. Not only is the air directly polluted, but alternative cleaner energy sources (including rooftop solar systems) are severely disadvantaged.
As these subsidies are removed, we also need to invest heavily in public transit so that buses and the metro can compete against private vehicles. Delhi has made progress here by introducing the metro, but bus services have not improved in quality and safety. Feeder services to the metro remain poor. The state government of Delhi should make it a goal to remove these flaws and create a transit network in the city that is fast and comfortable enough to compete against private cars. By reducing congestion, such policies would also benefit those vehicles that do remain on the road. And while this has no direct relation to air pollution, in the era of the Aam Aadmi Party, it is also worthwhile to remind ourselves of the egalitarian nature of public transit. The Delhi metro, for instance, carries side by side corporate employees and office workers, students, mothers and children, daily labourers, maids, etc.
There is one final point worth making. We are repeatedly told by political parties that environmental pollution reflects the costs of growth, a bitter pill that we must swallow if we want jobs, industry and a vibrant economy. This claim is simply untrue. It is true that our environmental laws have weaknesses that lead to reduced investment, poor enforcement and high costs. But the solution to this problem is not to give up on clean air and water. Rather, the answer lies in reforming our regulatory framework.
With the information from advanced pollution monitoring for example, it is possible to make market-friendly environmental policies that encourage industry and power plants to pollute less. Such regulation has been advocated by numerous experts and environmental economists, including in committees set up by the ministry of environment and forests. The MoEF, CPCB and several states have now begun a pilot to test a market-based regulatory mechanism to control particulate air pollution. The importance of such pilots cannot be over-emphasised. Repeatedly testing innovative new ways to reduce pollution and scaling up the ideas that seem to work is the only long-term strategy likely to help India solve its environmental challenges.
The writers are Sustainability Science Fellows at Harvard Kennedy School, US