A little past midnight at the Delhi-Ghaziabad border on Thursday, a police officer walks to a truck with ‘India is Great’ painted behind it, and asks, “Pataake toh nahi hain?” The driver shakes his head and the truck, laden with vegetables, trudges along, leaving behind a trail of sooty smoke.
A year earlier, the Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority (EPCA) had submitted to the Supreme Court that the air in Delhi after Diwali was the worst it had ever been — 14 times worse than the norm, and even worse than the ‘Great Smog of London in 1952’. This year — all signs indicate — could be equally bad, if not worse.
Take, for example, this border checkpost, where trucks queue up and drivers play cards while clutching handkerchiefs to their faces. The air hangs heavy, the acrid smell of diesel permeating everything.
In 2015 and 2016, the Supreme Court had issued orders to not allow trucks not destined for Delhi into the city. It had also stressed on more stringent enforcement of rules to check polluting vehicles. Between midnight and 12.30 am, 24 trucks cross the checkpost at Ghaziabad. Of these, 13 are visibly polluting, but only one is told to turn back. “The papers were all in order. They had PUCs and other documents,” a South Corporation official said.
Most rules, drivers said, are meant to be broken. “Option nahi hai koi aur. They send some trucks back, but that’s just for show. If you have money for a bribe, you can get in. Who is going to stop a truck carrying food meant for the city?” Jignesh Kumar, who drives a 13-year-old truck, said. South Delhi mayor Kamaljeet Sehrawat said, “Such things shouldn’t be happening. I will get it inspected.”
In the meantime, on October 6, the EPCA began a survey at the Delhi-Gurgaon Kapashera border to assess the efficacy of imposing the Environment Compensation Charge on commercial vehicles entering Delhi — in force since 2015. It will be done at 20 such points in two phases — before and after Diwali.
Up in flames
Trucks are just one of the many contradictions in attempting to solve Delhi’s air crisis — they pollute, but the city can’t function without them. Such contradictions, officials said, are at the heart of all efforts to curb air pollution.
Take, for instance, the issue of crop residue burning. This was underscored by the EPCA in its 2016 report to the Supreme Court, when it said “burning of paddy residue by farmers in Punjab and Haryana” had “compounded” Delhi’s already existing poor air — leading to smog in winters. Earlier last week, the Central Pollution Control Board made a presentation to Delhi government officials, saying that “crop burning in 2017 was already much worse” than last year.
A Delhi government official said, “There are two districts in particular where emissions are high — Tarn Taran and Amritsar. Crop burning in Punjab area of Pakistan is also high. All this has a direct impact on pollution in Delhi.”
Although the National Green Tribunal pulled up the Punjab government last week for not taking measures to prevent farmers from burning crop residue, the petitioner in the case, Vikrant Tongad, said, “At best, air pollution due to crop residue burning will come down by 10%. The case has been going on for five years, and orders were issued by the NGT in 2015. But compliance has been very poor. If farmers aren’t given an alternative, why will they suffer losses?”
Over the past week, images from NASA, available through its Fire Mapper, have revealed a considerable upsurge in the number of fires in not just Punjab, but also Haryana and western UP, between September 30 and October 6 — when paddy stubble is removed.
Naresh Tewatia (42), a farmer in Greater Noida’s Bisrakh village, said: “This year hasn’t been good for us. Transportation costs are high. How are we to make money? The government hasn’t given us equipment, they just want to impose fines.” Shorter crop cycles, especially in Punjab, give farmers little time to prepare their fields, while mechanised harvesters leave behind 10-30 cm long stubble that has to be removed quickly. With labour becoming more expensive in NCR, burning of residue is the cheapest option.
A senior official of the Gautam Budh Nagar district administration said, “Initially, we imposed fines. Now, farmers have started forming unofficial collectives, which give them anonymity. Farms next to each other are set on fire; who do we catch then?”
Despite this, the Delhi government is hopeful. Its anti-firecracker campaign is set to begin next week, while Environment Minister Imran Hussain has directed officials to “complete the installation of 20 new monitoring stations on time so that air quality can be efficiently measured during winter and Diwali”. According to the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, the plan is on track — three monitoring stations have come up, while the rest are likely to be ready by October 15.
However, experts said while micro-mapping neighbourhoods to better understand localised reasons for pollution is helpful, it isn’t enough.
Vivek Chattopadhyay of the Centre for Science and Environment said, “This is only part of the solution. Generating data is important, because we can then have area-based management plans. But you can’t say that you will act only once you have data.”
On October 15, the Graded Response Action Plan, formulated by an SC-mandated panel, will come into force. Its measures include odd-even scheme for cars, road-space rationing, shutting of industries as well as schools — depending on air quality. EPCA chairman Bhure Lal said, “The situation in Delhi is worrying. We will enforce rules strictly.” A senior official of the Delhi environment ministry added that odd-even scheme and shutting of schools will be done only on “severe or emergency air quality days”.
Last year in November, as per government sources, hospitals saw a 50% spike in cases of respiratory ailments — with children being the most vulnerable.
Plans on hold
Despite the measures, the fight against air pollution remains an uphill task, officials said. Take, for instance, the measure to “intensify public transport”. In September, the Delhi cabinet had approved a proposal to procure 2,000 new buses, half of them for the state-run Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC). However, the DTC needs 11,000 buses — it has not been able to buy new ones since 2009-10, when it procured 3,775 vehicles. As per its estimates, of the existing fleet, 3,951 buses are “over aged” and need to be withdrawn by next year.
The SDMC’s plan to construct multi-level parking lots to reduce congestion has also been derailed due to lack of land. While it had requested for land in Raja Garden, Tilak Nagar, Munirka, Yusuf Sarai and Adhchini, government agencies such as DUSIB, DDA and PWD turned them down.
To control construction dust, the SC had directed the repair and building of pavements and vacuuming of roads. But for Delhi’s extensive road network spanning 28,508 km, the SDMC has 12 mechanised sweeping machines, North has four and East has three.
On the ambitious plans to increase green cover, a forest department official said, “There are two main issues with this. Firstly, new saplings are planted in areas that are already lush. So Asola Bhatti, a reserved forest, gets planted over and over again, while Badarpur becomes barren. Secondly, there is no mechanism to ensure that the greening is done in a way that the saplings survive.”
As per an IIT-Kanpur study, the two largest sources of PM (particulate matter) 2.5 — the marker for air pollution — are road dust or dust kicked up by moving vehicles (38%) and vehicles (20%).
In 2016, the number of new vehicles in Delhi increased from 5.34 lakh to 8.77 lakh, as per the Delhi statistical handbook. The total number of vehicles in Delhi during 2015-16 was 97.05 lakh. Delhi government sources estimate that currently, there are over 1 crore vehicles registered in Delhi, while lakhs more pour in from neighbouring states each day. “It is almost impossible to stop the number of vehicles from increasing. We need sustained effort from not just the state government but also the Centre,” the environment ministry official said.
Back at the Delhi-Ghaziabad border, at noon the next day, the checkposts have been kept aside and the trucks have moved on, replaced by smaller vehicles.
A solitary traffic policeman, Vikram Singh, stands guard, a mask on his face providing him scant protection from the fumes. “All this talk of air pollution is something that those of us out on the field understand better than most. People sit in their cars, with their windows rolled up, and don’t even turn off the engines at a signal. Those who talk about how pollution is impacting their health, will shout when you challan them for not getting a pollution check,” he said.