Chairperson of the Environment Pollution Control Authority, Bhure Lal, insists that implementing the graded action plan won’t be difficult, underlines the need for an efficient public transport system, admits tackling stubble-burning is tough and says odd-even can be implemented if the need arises.
Why Bhure lal
Earlier this month, measures under the graded response plan’s ‘very poor’ category, including a blanket ban on garbage-burning, firecrackers and closure of brick kilns, were enforced across Delhi by the Supreme Court-empowered Environment Pollution Control Authority. As chairperson of the committee, Bhure Lal is central to the implementation of the ambitious plan, which involves coordinating with at least 16 agencies across four states. The man who introduced CNG fuel in Delhi is confident of solving the Capital’s pollution woes and says change will come with time.
MALLICA JOSHI: Earlier this month, the Ministry of Environment notified the Graded Response Action Plan to combat air pollution in Delhi-NCR. At least 16 agencies across four states will have to work together to implement this plan. As chairperson of the Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA), which is responsible for coordinating with the agencies on the ground, what do you think will be some of the challenges of implementation?
Yes, we have to coordinate with the agencies and the nodal points have been identified. The central monitoring committee, under the secretary of the Ministry of Environment, will look into it. At the state level, there will be a monitoring committee under the chief secretary. The CPCB (Central Pollution Control Board) will coordinate with the state pollution control boards. A task force with experts has also been formed. These experts will provide weather forecast for 48 hours. The IMD (India Meteorological Department) is also a part of the task force. This information (the forecast) will be passed on to the chief secretary concerned, who will then send it across to the state and district nodal officers, based on which action will be taken.
I do not think there will be any difficulty in coordination because the enforcing agencies have been identified. Yes, but there should be a willingness on the part of the agencies. We have to go to the field to ensure that action is taken as per the Graded Response Action Plan.
MALLICA JOSHI: The Delhi government has said that it will be very difficult to implement the scheme without notice of at least a week, so that alternative arrangements for public transport can be made.
The situation we witnessed in the early days of November was an unusual one, compounded by many factors. In case such a situation arises again, we will watch for 48 hours and alert the monitoring agencies accordingly. Now if the situation does not improve, odd-even will be enforced. But it is not a normal measure, it is an emergency measure. Our objective is to nip the problem in the bud. If we tackle the problem effectively, the situation for severe or emergency plans may not arise. Our objective is to tackle pollution at the earliest possible stage so that the situation does not get aggravated.
MALLICA JOSHI: What do you think will be the biggest hurdle in implementing such a plan?
Implementation is the catch word here. If people (agencies) don’t implement things, the situation will get out of hand. Now, since we are holding people accountable at every stage, there will be some sort of implementation to start with. We will go to the ground ourselves, examine things and give directives.
Let’s take the case of stubble-burning in Punjab, Haryana and some districts of western Uttar Pradesh, which happens in the month of October and early November. At the time, we were holding a meeting with the authorities concerned in Chandigarh, Haryana and Punjab. They were telling us we have formed a task force, we have formed committees and we are going to implement this and that. So we thought of visiting some fields in both Punjab and Haryana. We saw stubble being burnt. Now we will subject these guys to some sort of action, some sort of punishment, penalties and fines, and then things will improve.
The fact is that we have not yet realised that we are confronting a problem. Just look at the magnitude of the problem of stubble-burning in Punjab, it is about 15 million tonnes. The same amount is being burnt in Haryana. The problem is much bigger than what it appears to be.
APURVA: Could you elaborate on the penalties and strictures which you plan to implement?
Action can be taken under the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981. If we take the specific case of Punjab and Haryana… Haryana implemented it to some extent. They collected penalties of more than Rs 20 lakh. Punjab also did something. But Punjab has an election and so they were not too willing to implement it now. Next time, I am sure, with all the judicial authorities, the National Green Tribunal and our organisation taking measures, there will be better implementation.
Also, if we opt for prosecution, it will take years. Imposition of penalty is then and there and it has an impact too. See, things are not easy to implement on this front (stubble-burning) because habits die hard. People are used to setting their paddy stock on fire because they save labour. The time gap between rabi and kharif crop is about 30 days, which forces the farmer to vacate the field at the earliest, so that they can sow the next crop. So now we have to tell them that there are alternatives available — stubble can be converted into electricity, it can be converted to green manure. The Kirloskars have come out with a technology where this paddy stock can be used for generation of electricity and the residue can be used as fertiliser.
AMITABH SINHA: Your committee has to deal with emergency situations and spikes in pollution levels. However, your emphasis is not on dealing with the base load, which itself is beyond the permissible limit, and is present throughout the year. In the absence of enough measures to tackle the base load, what impact will an emergency action plan have?
We will be monitoring air quality throughout the year, not just during the period of spikes. We will point out the situation when pollution levels are in the moderate to poor category, so that the need for severe emergency measures does not arise. We have already issued instructions to this effect. If the situation warrants, such as during the crop-burning period, then we will resort to more severe measures.
AMITABH SINHA: Diwali and paddy-burning are seasonal. The severity of the problem is also because the base loads are so high. With that kind of base load, the spikes will get pronounced. You are saying that you will monitor it throughout the year. But what is the action plan to deal with normal pollution load on a normal day?
Those have been enumerated in the action plan itself. As far as Diwali crackers are concerned, notices have already been issued. The case is pending before court. In the future we will take steps based on what the situation demands.
KAUNAIN SHERIFF M: When it comes to monitoring, the NCR is very poorly equipped. Most of the monitoring stations are in Delhi. How do you plan to expand the network to optimally monitor the entire region?
There are 28 stations in Delhi and 23 in the National Capital Region. Fifty-five more stations have been planned, which will be commissioned before the end of this year. So we have taken care of that problem. We are setting up monitoring stations in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.
KAUNAIN SHERIFF M: And are you thinking of auditing the existing network?
Yes. The CPCB has been given the job.
KAUNAIN SHERIFF M: Can you elaborate on how you plan to coordinate between agencies while implementing the Graded Response Action Plan?
We call each one of them and ask them about the work they have done. In one of the meetings, Rajasthan pleaded that the state does not contribute to air pollution and should be taken out of NCR. We said no. The jugaad (refurbished vehicles) runs in the state and pollutes the air. Then, we have asked each state to nominate a nodal officer. We will be dealing with them. We will issue directions to the district magistrate and it will be his duty to implement them.
See, people are suffering in villages too. We have spoken to many farmers and they say that even they feel the impact of air pollution. Air pollution reduces our lifespan and everyone is realising this, even those who indulge in activities such as crop-burning. A time will come when stubble-burning, garbage-burning on city roads, it will all come to an end.
APURVA: You have been interacting with the Central government, state government, bureaucrats etc. How seriously do they take the issue of air pollution?
They are serious now.
AMITABH SINHA: Can you talk about the steps being taken to deal with road dust, tar particles, construction dust etc?
Orders have been issued to tackle these problems, and these are being implemented. If building material is lying around, it has to be properly covered and water has to be sprinkled on it. Steps are being implemented and fines have been collected. Each violation costs Rs 5,000.
Vacuum cleaning is being done, but are our roads fit for vacuum cleaning? There is encroachment on roads everywhere. Our instructions are very clear. If the situation is getting out of hand, we will sprinkle water, and ensure that dust settles down. For garbage-burning, again, there is a penalty of Rs 5,000 per offence.
One person dies every hour because of air pollution in Delhi. Imagine the number of bronchitis and asthma patients during the spike days. You must have seen newspaper reports.
Earlier the benzene level in petrol was about 6 per cent. It is carcinogenic. We have managed to control the levels considerably and these have been reduced to less than 1 per cent now. We have also ensured that lead-free petrol is being supplied all over the country.
During the ’70s, the number of automobiles in Delhi was 8 lakh. By the close of the century, that is 2000, the number was 28 lakh. Today, the number of automobiles in Delhi is 95 lakh. This is what is affecting (pollution levels). Slow-moving traffic is more polluting. In Delhi, vehicles are moving bumper to bumper. Now, we can’t force people to not buy vehicles. So there is a need for a good public transport system, which is efficient, reliable, dependable. Metro capacity is being enhanced, the number of coaches is being increased.
ANANT GOENKA: Can you give us a break-up of the percentage of pollution caused by crop-burning, vehicles and construction work on any given day in Delhi?
If you take last year, wind speed was almost zero. Then there was crop-burning and Diwali, besides the pollution caused by vehicles. According to SAFAR (System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research), burning of crops in Punjab added 9,000 metric tonnes of PM 2.5 to the environment. In the 1970s, about 70 per cent was contributed by industries, 20 per cent by vehicles and 10 per cent came from homes. This situation has been reversed. Now 50-60 per cent of the pollution is because of vehicles, 10 per cent comes from homes, and the rest from industries and other sources such as crop-burning.
SUSHANT SINGH: What are the deadlines for achieving normalcy in pollution levels? Is there a plan to subsidise farmers for tools etc?
We spoke to the authorities concerned in Chandigarh, Punjab and Haryana. I gave names of three instruments that can be used for converting paddy straw into fertiliser. Punjab alone has demanded a sum of Rs 10,000 crore. Haryana will also ask for the same. We have suggested that they (states) provide subsidy through cooperatives etc, instead of individually subsidising farmers.
Deadlines depend on certain factors which are beyond our control. For instance, if there is no wind velocity, we can’t do much. But yes, we will succeed in converting paddy straw to electricity. Six plants have already been set up in Punjab and 13 are in the pipeline. But just see the quantum of paddy straw produced, 15 million tonnes, and only 1.5 million tonnes of this can be used by the existing infrastructure. Once all the 13 plants are set up, conditions will improve.
Secondly, if the 45-day period to convert paddy straw to fertiliser is reduced to, say, 25 days, the farmer will have enough time to sow the rabi crop. Ludhiana University is working on it.
ABHISHEK ANGAD: You spoke about imposing penalties for garbage-burning. But how will you fine the authority that controls the landfills in Delhi, which are constantly on fire?
The Lieutenant Governor is looking into it. The problem is that these landfills have not been maintained scientifically. The methane is generated from within, not from the top. The right technology should be adopted. There is need for a detailed study. We have alerted the authorities. Recently, the L-G himself visited the site and he is taking action.
NAVEED IQBAL: What is being done with the funds collected through environment cess?
The sum of Rs 120 crore is being spent on RFID (Radio Frequency Identification). The rest will be utilised by the Delhi government to augment the public transport system and roads. The Supreme Court gave directions to introduce the RFID, which will ensure that the toll for trucks be adjusted automatically and there will be no stoppage at entry points. So, pollution caused by slow-moving traffic and standing vehicles will be reduced.
APURVA: When we speak of air pollution, we only talk about the Delhi-NCR region. But look at the air pollution levels in Lucknow, Kanpur, Gwalior, even cities such as Bengaluru. Will this plan be expanded to other cities?
Yes, definitely. All three-wheelers in Bengaluru are on LPG, even in Chennai. We have ensured that. CNG is probably reaching Bengaluru now, though not Tamil Nadu. We were not very keen on LPG either, although it is a clean fuel as per our report. We have adopted CNG because it is safer as compared to LPG, it doesn’t explode. Hyderabad and Lucknow have moved to CNG. Earlier, there were Vikrams (vehicles) plying in Lucknow, which were highly polluting. Also, Kanpur is worse than Delhi.
But just see how the transport system has expanded. The number of vehicles is multiplying. Population is also increasing, and each house today has more than one car. So these are all factors that are contributing to the pollution levels.