Dear Activists And Courts, Can We Please Go After The Real Culprits Behind Delhi’s Air Pollution?

Dear Activists And Courts, Can We Please Go After The Real Culprits Behind Delhi’s Air Pollution?

by Srikanth Ramakrishnan - Saturday, October 21, 2017 04:15 PM IST
Dear Activists And Courts, Can We Please Go After The Real Culprits Behind Delhi’s Air Pollution?Supreme Court banned the sale of firecrackers in NCR and not its use. (Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
  • We told you so...

    Bans are futile. Here’s what Delhi should actually do to reduce pollution...

The National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi – constantly in the news for its polluted atmosphere – is still in the news for the same reasons. Not much has changed post the Supreme Court’s ban on the sale of firecrackers during Deepavali, earlier this month.

In the past, a lot of things have been banned in Delhi to control pollution, from cars (the Odd-Even Scheme), to firecrackers and also, crucially, burning of paddy stubble.

A PTI report says that pollutant levels shot up massively during the week, reaching ten times of the maximum ‘safe limits’ over a 24-hour period. Interestingly, the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) has predicted a relatively cleaner post-Deepavali air, not because of lesser firecrackers but due to favourable meteorological conditions – which will reduce the flow of pollutants from Haryana and Punjab into Delhi.

It is important to remember that the apex court had only banned the sale of firecrackers in the National Capital Region (NCR) and not its use. Further, as we had discovered last week, the court had clearly stated in its ruling that it could not be said with any great degree of certainty that the extremely poor quality of air in Delhi was the result only of bursting firecrackers around Deepavali, and that it was not possible to give an accurate or relative assessment of the contribution of the other identified factors nor the contribution of bursting firecrackers to the poor air quality.

So, What Next?

Let us go back to 2016 when the High Court of Delhi asked the four states surrounding the capital – Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan – to produce an ‘action plan’ to tackle the issue of crop stubble burning.

The effects of crop stubble being burnt are well documented, with a survey pegging that around 84 per cent of people in the NCT are facing various health issues due to the smoke emanating from paddy stubble being burnt in Punjab and Haryana.

A report last week said that pollution levels were down 40 per cent thanks to a partial implementation of the High Court’s orders. We had listed this as a major cause of the NCR’s pollution, along with other major causes such as landfill fires.

The Bhalswa landfill caught fire in Delhi for three whole weeks in 2016 and both the Delhi government as well as the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) were busy playing the blame game. Just last week, the Ghazipur landfill caught fire although it had been declared saturated in 2002. Why was it still in use? The National Green Tribunal (NGT) is yet to give a green signal to the MCD for an alternative site.

Why does the question of Delhi’s pollution arise only during Deepavali? While it is known that the near-zero temperatures in North India cause pollutants to remain closer to the ground in the winter, why does the topic of pollution disappear right after the festivities are over? Firecrackers are burst during Christmas, New Year, and are a part of many a North Indian wedding – most of which take place during the season. Why then, are they not taken into consideration during a ban? What will the government or judiciary ban next? A vehicle ban did not work well, neither did a ban on the sale of firecrackers. It is interesting to note that following the Supreme Court’s orders, all commercial vehicles in the NCR run on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) – which produces lesser emissions – as opposed to Diesel.

So, What Should be the Logical Step Ahead?

No more bans, please. They’ve proven futile and if anyone is serious about the health of the capital’s residents, there are some serious steps to be taken.

One, take the High Court’s decision seriously. Penalise farmers who burn paddy stubble. Many of them don’t carry them to government power plants, simply because it is economically unviable. Perhaps the government can set up more power plants, or even better, incentivise the private sector to do it.

Two, conduct a proper study on what are the real causes for pollution in the capital and find a solution. This opens the doors to more research on various matters from cleaner air to better health. The Supreme Court in its ruling did state that they were unaware of the actual effects of firecrackers on pollution and health. This seems like a perfect time to actually study what ails Delhi.

Three, pollution-free crackers anyone? Last week, Union Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change Harsh Vardhan appealed for scientists to focus on pollution-free firecrackers.

Predictably, he was trolled online for it, but there was some depth to his words. An article by The Verge, published in July – following 4 July celebrations in the United States – had said that pollution-free firecrackers were very close to reality. Why aren’t we looking at this?

While there are many who argue that firecrackers aren’t a ‘part of our culture’, that is irrelevant. Robbing people of their right to revelry is not a solution to the capital’s air. Research into how to reduce the pollution, or implementing the High Court order on paddy-stubble burning, seems more appropriate.

Srikanth’s interests include public transit, urban management and transportation infrastructure.

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