Seven years ago, everyone saw Delhi’s air take a deadly U-turn but no one did a thing

As many as 15 authoritative studies red-flagged how landmark gains from CNG were being frittered away.

Written by Aniruddha Ghosal , Pritha Chatterjee | New Delhi | Updated: March 31, 2015 5:48:51 pm
Delhi pollution, air pollution, Delhi air pollution, pollution delhi, green delhi, delhi green, M C Mehta, Sheila Dikshit, Kuldip Singh, delhi pollution level, delhi environment pollution, environmental pollution, pollution city delhi, pollution delhi environment, delhi news, india news, nation news As many as 15 authoritative studies red-flagged how landmark gains from CNG were being frittered away.

The way the graph moves tells the story of a public health disaster that has been allowed to happen: over the last 15 years, the fall and rise of the lethal, fine dust that clogs your lungs every day in the nation’s capital. READ: ‘Judiciary hasn’t been as active, needs to step in,’ says Kuldip Singh

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After the historic Supreme Court judgement in 1998 forced all public transport vehicles, an estimated 100,000, to switch to cleaner Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), the levels of respirable suspended particulate matter, or RSPM, in the city’s air begin to dip year on year.

In 1995, suspended particulate matter in Delhi had hit a high of 409 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre). In 2000, two years after the CNG verdict, scientists measured the tinier and virtually invisible RSPM for the first time and found the level at 191 µg/m3 — it fell to 161 µg/m3 in 2007.

READ: ‘You have to understand there are various lobbies,’ says Sheila Dikshit

Then, as sharply as a sudden gasp, from 2008 to be precise, the levels begin to rise and rise.

And rise to the current 316 µg/m3, nearly 16 times what is considered healthy by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and nearly twice that of Beijing, the next most-polluted city in the world. So much so that even during the last monsoon in July-September — when nature ensures the lowest RSPM levels thanks to rain — the number was 171 µg/m3. It didn’t have to be this way.

READ: ‘Big talk when in Opp, talk of lobbies when in power’

As an investigation by The Indian Express reveals beginning today, at least 15 authoritative studies, public and private, tracked the curve take this treacherous U-turn and rang alarm bells at regular intervals. But the Sheila Dikshit government in the state and the Manmohan Singh government at the Centre couldn’t care less.

Result: the dramatic CNG gains — a 20% dip in RSPM levels in seven years — were steadily and sharply being frittered away. By a combination of government inaction and a set of factors linked to the manner in which the city and its suburbs were growing and how they were handling — mishandling, to be precise — construction, transport and fuel.

READ: Delhi pollution: The studies no one acted on

“You never get such an opportunity, very few cities of this size get to clean up so fast,” said Justice Kuldip Singh who was, till his retirement in 1996, a member of various Supreme Court benches that heard a number of pleas on environmental issues, including the one on air pollution in Delhi.

“And then you waste all that. Today, your air has actually become like poison. Either it was ignorance or neglect or both,” he added.

READ: Explained: Know your toxins

Said Advocate M C Mehta, the petitioner in the CNG case: “Once we were showcased and celebrated as a success and then we completely failed to hold on to the good days.” That the good days were ending wasn’t lost on anyone. Consider these:

FIRST ALARM BELL FROM THE LAB, 2007

Dr Pramila Goyal, from IIT Delhi’s Centre for Atmospheric Studies, rang the first alarm in 2007, a year before the line spiked. As the principal investigator of a study sponsored by the Delhi government, she predicted that “emissions of air pollutants” by diesel-fuelled vehicles may exceed norms soon.

“I don’t know what happened after I submitted my findings. The Delhi Government had approached me after I finished my study and asked me to send it to Sheila Dikshit, who was the chief minister at the time. I refused because that’s not my job,” Goyal said.

Delhi pollution: The studies no one acted on

TWO MORE IN 2009 & 2012, ON TRANSPORT

Apart from a number of other studies that warned about the rising danger, two of the loudest alarm bells were sounded by the NCR Planning Board — in 2009 and 2012.

In 2009, the board — an inter-Ministerial group under the Union Urban Development Ministry with representatives from Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh — warned that the “latest trends indicate increase in PM levels, particularly in PM2.5, which have reached alarming proportions”.

Levels for PM2.5 in Delhi exceeded the standard by six times, the board said. RSPM includes PM10 and below — particulate matter lesser than 10 micron (a micron is one-millionth of a metre) in diameter.

Three years later, the board’s transport plan monitored the air quality at 82 stations in Delhi, and warned that “the prescribed standard limits were… being violated at all the monitoring stations. These levels are expected to rise further beyond critical limits”.

One person who was on the board was Naini Jayaseelan, who was member secretary and chairperson of Delhi Pollution Control Committee from 2006-2008. “Had the government of Delhi and member states of NCR taken decisions to leapfrog into second generation reforms we would have perhaps ensured that the graph of air quality had a different curve — the pollutants would have continued dipping and new pollutants would not have surfaced in the air,” she said.

WHO WAS WATCHING, WHAT DO THEY HAVE TO SAY?

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) are directly responsible for ensuring clean air in Delhi.

When contacted, current CPCB member secretary A B Akolkar said that the figures need to be placed in context. “From 2007-2015, you’ll see that overall air pollution has decreased, but the annual PM2.5 and PM10 averages are increasing. This needs to be understood in the context of increase in vehicles. The problem is that while emission norms were made more stringent and pollution levels dipped, the increase in vehicles skewed the matter.”

So what was the CPCB doing all this while?

“I am not in a position to comment… the current authorities can comment, whatever was done is documented in files, and available with the current post-bearers,” said J S Kamyotra who was the member secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) from 2008 to 2012.

Kamyotra was originally appointed by the then Congress-led UPA government to head the central body for a three-year term but was granted five extensions, of three months each. He is now a scientist in charge of the CPCB’s Pollution Control Planning division.

Dr B Sengupta, who headed the CPCB from 1998-2008 said, “In Delhi, the pollutant levels increased for three reasons — increase in diesel vehicles, mobile towers which had diesel generating sets, and small scale industries. The findings were published by us every year, both the rise in pollutants and the reasons. We have also submitted them to MoEF at regular intervals,” Dr Sengupta said.

“I am not authorised to speak on this matter,” said Sanjiv Kumar, Delhi’s Environment Secretary and chairman of DPCC.

There were alarm bells initially, admitted JK Dadoo, Delhi’s Environment Secretary from 2007-2009. “The IIT Delhi study suggested urgent need for monitoring, so we began monitoring air quality from 42 locations in Delhi. We would send DPCC team members to various locations, where the air quality was poor. Today, there are six permanent monitoring stations,” he said.

The CPCB, meanwhile, has been without a full-time chairman since Prof S P Gautam completed his tenure in 2012, thanks to a lengthy recruitment process that was further stalled after one of the candidates challenged the move in court.

Environment Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Ashok Lavasa, said that the ministry was “in the process” of selecting a fulltime chairman and that the appointment would “happen soon”.

THE WASTED YEARS: WHAT WAS UNDONE, WHAT WASN’T DONE

According to Dr Gufran Beig, project director, System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), Ministry of Earth Sciences, “From all available data, it is clear that Delhi made big gains in those immediate years after introduction of CNG, particulate matter levels went down exponentially. Then they started rising again because of the presence of more diesel vehicles, lack of curbs on the number of trucks entering Delhi, and the unruly construction the region has seen.”

Official documents accessed by The Indian Express show that there were some attempts to get back on track.

For instance, the minutes of a review meeting on air quality before the 2010 Commonwealth Games, which was attended by senior officials and experts, listed some remedial steps including the closure of industries on a “negative list”.

An official who attended that meeting, but did not wish to be identified, admitted that nothing much happened after that.

The Delhi government, meanwhile, proposed a slew of steps to get a grip on a crisis that was fast spinning out of control, including a cess on the sale of diesel, a congestion tax, making its main markets congestion-free zones, and regulating access to cars on specific days. Of these, only the 25 paise per litre cess on diesel has been implemented.

Some of the environment experts that The Indian Express spoke to were clear that “there were no steps” taken to take the “CNG reforms” forward. CNG burns cleaner than petrol or diesel because of its lower carbon content and produces 95% fewer emissions than petroleum products.

“When I travelled for international conferences immediately after the CNG days, scientists would say Delhi’s air has visibly improved. They said that when you land in a flight you could see the skyline of the city — at night you can see the stars. One would hear this and feel proud,” said Dr J N Pande, who had led an AIIMS study in 1997-98 linking outdoor air pollution to hospital visits for respiratory and cardiovascular events.

Dr Pande’s study was cited by Supreme Court in its CNG judgment of 1998. “Those gains have been lost and it is very disheartening to people who were so closely involved in the first phase of pollution reforms,” Dr Pande added.

Another key figure in that judgment was Bhure Lal, who headed a expert panel to advise the three-member bench. “Things have gone horribly wrong since then. An increase in the consumption of diesel combined with the city’s inability to keep out trucks not destined to Delhi has resulted in this situation,” he said.

Another study that the Supreme Court cited in 1998 was conducted by Dr Maureen Cropper, a former World Bank economist, who joined hands with New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC), to find a link in 1997 between mortality rates and air pollution levels.

“There are definite parallels in the pollution story in what we saw in India in the 1990s and the US in the 1960s. Court orders and directives preceded state action, which had many advantages, many decisions could be implemented more effectively because the judiciary took the first step, we saw that in air quality in Delhi,” Dr Cropper said.

Last month, the Supreme Court-appointed Environmental Protection Control Authority (EPCA), responding to a petition from M C Mehta, whose earlier plea led to the CNG judgement 17 years ago, told the apex court: “In view of the significant increase in toxic air pollution and loss of air quality gains from the CNG programme and other first generation action directed by the Honorable Supreme Court, key directives are sought… to accelerate second generation reforms to protect public health in Delhi and the NCR.”

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