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Clearing the air on pollution: Start with the basic steps first

Fancy ideas like cloud seeding to force rainfall and make the dust to settle are floated without making any effort to do the simple, basic and straightforward things.

Written by Amitabh Sinha |
Updated: November 13, 2016 5:45:56 pm
Delhi pollution, air pollution, delhi smog, delhi air pollution, most polluted city, most polluted city india, most polluted place, delhi air quality, air quality index, india news A blanket of smog in New Delhi.

Banning is one of the favourite instruments governments use to solve any problem, whether related to national security or air pollution. In the last few days, amidst an outrage over air quality, a ban has been imposed on all construction activity, on the operation of brick kilns and stone crushers, on the operation of coal-based power plants, and on diesel generator sets in Delhi. There have been suggestions to ban firecrackers on Diwali, and there is an ongoing attempt to get crop-burning in some neighbouring states banned. 15-year-old diesel vehicles are already banned, as are trucks entering Delhi if they are headed for some other location. Many of these bans are endorsed by the National Green Tribunal, and applauded by a section of the people.

Bans are popular with governments because it is the easiest thing to do. All the government needs to do is issue an order. But most of the problems do not go away as easily. Certainly not air pollution — which would require long-term engagement and sustained effort over years, if not decades, to address.

Fancy ideas like cloud seeding to force rainfall and make the dust to settle are floated without making any effort to do the simple, basic and straightforward things. Large parts of the city are permanent dust bowls, but there is never any talk about either paving them or putting them under grass or plantations. There is never an outrage against the dust being released from these places even at the height of pollution debates. Broken roads are not repaired for months, sometimes years. Recent studies have shown that road dust, comprising coal-tar, is one of the major contributors to Delhi’s pollution problem. But there is no effort to improve the quality of roads, or to extend the paved road up to the sidewalks. Sprinkling water on the sides of roads in some selected areas on a few days is no more than tokenism.

Almost every construction site remains uncovered, and construction materials lie in the open. The Environment Ministry recently made it mandatory for all construction sites to cover up, but there is no implementation. There is probably not one construction site that comes anywhere close to how buildings or roads are constructed in more developed parts of the world. Some sites hang tattered green cloth on under-construction buildings which does nothing to check the dust but adds a lot of ugliness to the structure.

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A simple decision, to force trucks to have only covered containers at the back, has been pending for years now. This is important not just to ensure dust is not released from the materials being carried, but also to check against overload, a rampant problem. But trucks are allowed to simply let their dusty cargo fly around as they move.

These, and many more, like uncollected garbage, piles of debris, contribute to the base-load of air pollution in Delhi that continues throughout the year. Diwali crackers, and even crop-burning, only trigger seasonal spikes, at worst extending to a week or two. The entire focus in the last few days has been to deal with this spike — while hardly any efforts has been made to control the base-load, which in itself is unacceptably high.

A Delhi Minister has written to Union Environment Ministry asking for an apportionment study to be done to pin-point the sources of pollution in the entire NCR. Only last year, such a study, a fairly comprehensive one, was done by IIT Kanpur for the Delhi government. Hardly any action has been taken on that. Besides, a study is not required to do the obvious things. The IIT Kanpur study did not throw up any new surprises in terms of the sources of pollution. It only came up with data to show the relative responsibilities of various sources in contributing to pollution levels at specific locations in specific seasons. Such analyses are very useful for governments in selecting the control measures to be applied in order to get the most efficient results. But they can do nothing to help governments that are not able to take even the basic steps.

The debate on air pollution so far has been highly skewed. It is entirely Delhi-centric, and the actions being suggested are geared towards desperate short-term rewards. Ironically, a much better job has been done in framing national policies to tackle pollution even when there is hardly any noise about pollution in the rest of the country. The Environment Ministry has tightened the emission norms for a number of industries, including cement and coal power plants, and strengthened several waste management rules, while the Transport Ministry has decided to usher in BS-VI norms for automobiles a couple of years ahead of schedule. However, implementation of many other pollution standards, like those relating to construction material and waste, continues to suffer badly.

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First published on: 09-11-2016 at 12:21:34 am
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