Seventeen years after the Supreme Court judgment had converted public transport in Delhi to CNG, 2015 saw air pollution in the capital become the most important issue for public debate. Many policy decisions to improve the quality of air were ushered in, both by the central and state governments. There are many parallels with 1998, the most obvious being how most of this year’s policy decisions have been pushed once again by the judiciary.
The WHO’s 2014 statement, declaring Delhi’s air to be the poorest in the world, set the stage for this year’s events. The winter of 2014-15 with a sharp spike in particulate matter in the backdrop of assembly elections, saw activists for the first time perhaps push pollution as an election agenda. The AAP which went on to win by an unprecedented majority made a series of promises to improve air quality.
In one of its first reports to the Supreme Court (SC) this year, in February the SC appointed Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) stated that according to data from the previous winter, Delhi had lost whatever gains it had made in air quality from the CNG decision. EPCA pointed out that in the matter of particulates, the descent had been rapid and far sharper than the improvements in the first 5-6 years after the CNG decision. While many leading scientists including from IIT Delhi, attributed this to the long term noxious effects of CNG, others like the EPCA blamed it on the lax attitude of the governments in regulating primary sources of pollution — diesel, vehicles, trucks, and crop burning in neighbouring states like Punjab and Haryana among others.
From March-April, media reports warned of Delhi’s plummeting air quality. The Indian Express published a seven-part series with data from schools and hospitals, that showed how as air quality had reversed so had people’s health, with doctors advising many patients to leave the capital to for health reasons.
In April-May soon after AAP took office, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), took note of The Indian Express series and issued several orders. First, a committee was set up to monitor the inspection of trucks for overloading and pollution checks, supervised by commissioners appointed by the NGT.
These first monitoring reports by NGT commissioners showed how there was no clear monitoring of the number of trucks entering Delhi, that weighing scales had been delayed for years, and that overloading of trucks was rampant.
In June 2015, the National Air Quality Index (AQI) was launched by PM Narendra Modi. Designed by scientists from IIT Kanpur, the AQI was planned for years as a consolidated effort to quantify Delhi’s air quality, since there were multiple agencies monitoring Delhi’s air and giving conflicting reports. The AQI based on data from nine stations from different agencies at different locations, provided a colour coded indicator of air quality, intended to help the common man make sense of the data.
A committee was appointed to help prepare a health advisory to go with this colour coded system, but that group is unfortunately still to meet, and so there is only a one line standard advisory available on the AQI website with every colour code as health information on air quality.
Meanwhile, the NGT passed a series of orders instructing central and state governments to coordinate on expediting the expressways envisaged for non destined trucks to circumvent Delhi, and to find ways of managing construction waste, another emerging source of particulates in Delhi. The Delhi government told the courts that in July only 41 of 759 trucks which entered Delhi had flouted pollution norms. The Centre told the court that diesel vehicles entering Delhi were not a significant source of pollution.
The NGT slammed both these reports, and after a series of orders, in October this year for the first time, ordered an environment or pollution cess that non destined trucks entering Delhi would have to pay. The SC upheld this decision.
The NGT in December passed another sweeping order banning the registration of all diesel vehicles till January 6. The SC on December 17 enhanced this ban till March 31, banning the registration of only diesel vehicles of over 2000 cc which included all high end SUVs. The SC also directed that by March 31, 2016 all cabs entering Delhi should convert to CNG.
Outside Delhi, this year saw the Punjab and Haryana governments for the first time under the supervision of SC appointed EPCA monitor crop burning during the paddy season through satellite images. Prosecutions were launched and fines imposed.
The year also saw many research projects sanctioned around air pollution. The IMD and Institute of Tropical Metereology launched a five-year project beginning with the installation of high end towers to monitor and measure the components of smog and fog in Delhi winters, to understand the pollutants which contribute most to the annual weather phenomenon.
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has sanctioned a one year study beginning from January 2016 from three centres-AIIMS, Vallab Bhai Patel Chest Institute (VPCI) and Lady Hardinge Medical College (LHMC). The study will monitor hospital admissions with respect to air quality, in pediatric and adult patients in disease areas associated with pollution-respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. This study takes off from an AIIMS study of 1997-98 from the pre CNG era.
Many of the decisions on air pollution taken this year will test the waters next year. On December 3, the Delhi High Court rapped the Delhi government, asking it for policy measures it had taken to improve Delhi’s air this winter. A day later, CM Arvind Kejriwal announced the most radical policy measure for the new year: the odds-even scheme, whereby vehicles with odd and even number plates would be allowed to ply only on alternate days.