Last week, as Delhi’s air quality levels dipped below “poor”, pollution control authorities in the National Capital Region (NCR) issued a set of directives that evoke a sense of déjà vu. The Supreme Court-mandated Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority asked the chief secretaries of Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan to implement the Graded Action Response Plan — measures deployed since 2017 to take on the toxic cocktail of pollutants that makes an appearance in the capital’s atmosphere during autumn and continues to choke the city in the winter. The use of diesel generator sets will be banned from October 15, industries have been asked to use only “authorised” fuels, and municipal bodies have been directed to put dust control measures in place. In the past, this strategy has, at best, produced mixed results. A complete ban on diesel generators, for instance, hasn’t proved viable because of the frequent power outages in parts of Gurugram, Noida and Ghaziabad. Moreover, Delhi’s annual encounter with bad air has been compounded by the lack of concerted strategy to deal with the fumes from the post-harvest stubble burning in neighbouring Haryana and Punjab. Last year, the Delhi and Punjab governments were embroiled in an unseemly blame-game, while NCR residents gasped for breath. There is very little evidence, so far, that the two governments have plans to act in unison this year.
Last week, the Delhi government launched a “war room” to monitor particulate matter in real-time and gauge the pollution caused by crop residue burning. Other solutions, such as a bio-decomposer to manage stubble, are also in the works. But these projects may not yield immediate results. The bio-decomposer — developed at the Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI) in Delhi — will be used in only a fraction of the two million hectares of land where stubble is burnt. Meanwhile, IARI has reported a five-time increase in farm fires in the first week of October compared to the corresponding period last year. That this is largely because the area under short-duration paddy is on the rise, and farmers are in a haste to prepare their fields for the winter crop, shows that there can be no easy solutions to NCR’s pollution woes — the issue involves people’s livelihoods and requires the states in the region to keep talking to each other, and with the agriculturists, through the year.
This year the COVID-19 pandemic has made Delhi’s bad-air challenge tougher — it’s well-known that people with respiratory ailments are more vulnerable to the coronavirus. The Delhi government has said that it will resort to the odd-even policy if the city’s pollution becomes grave. It should keep in mind the constraints imposed by the pandemic. With social distancing imperatives preventing optimum passenger use of public transport, policies that inconvenience commuters may not be in tune with the imperative to put the economy back on rails. It’s apparent that pollution control authorities in NCR will have to join several dots this year — they will be watched.
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