If there is one lesson that policymakers ought to have learnt from the pollution crises that have engulfed Delhi on countless occasions in the past seven years it’s this: Combating the unhealthy haze requires new ideas. The past year began with a plan by the Environment Pollution Prevention and Control Authority (EPCA) promising a departure from the knee-jerk methods of countering pollution. The Supreme Court mandated agency’s Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) envisaged taking progressive steps before waiting for a red alert to be sounded. But when it was implemented, just before Diwali, GRAP bore the imprints of policies that have come a cropper in the past seven years — bans, fines, and other punitive measures. As the year drew to a close, two more plans — another graded action plan, this time by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), and a draft report of a high-level task force headed by Nripendra Misra, principal secretary to the prime minister — are proof that policymakers seem to have learnt a lesson or two but have not jettisoned the hackneyed approaches.
The positives first. The NGT and high-level task force show an inclination to engage with an aspect largely neglected in the official discourse on pollution — public transport. The task-force talks of integrating ticket services across DTC, cluster buses and the Metro. But the most troubling public transport factoid of the year seems to have eluded both the task force and the NGT: The Metro’s daily ridership has come down by three lakh after fares were increased in October. It’s a no-brainer that the loss of commuters will seriously undermine the Metro’s role as a pollution-reducing agent. Environmental agencies cannot wash their hands off the issue.
In several respects, the NGT’s plan bears similarities with the diktats it has issued during the pollution emergencies in the capital. It talks of prohibiting construction activity during a pollution crisis, even though the green court has itself admitted that such strictures have “remained unexecuted” in the past. The plan also talks about the odd-even scheme, without mentioning the squabble between the Delhi government and the NGT, which came in the way of the scheme being implemented last year. Given that it’s almost two years since the odd-even scheme had the first of its two runs in the capital — with much public support — it’s a shame that the glitches that have prevented it from being a permanent pollution control fixture have not been ironed out. Apart from fresh ideas, dealing with pollution also requires reflection and course correction. Let’s hope policymakers are up to the task in the new year.