Environmentalist Sunita Narain has been fighting for clean air for decades. The Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, with which she has been associated and now serves as director general, led the shift to compressed natural gas in Delhi, to reduce air pollution. Ms. Narain is on the statutory body set up under the Environment Protection Act as well as the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA), a Supreme Court-appointed panel to monitor pollution in the Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR). Excerpts from an interview on the magnitude of the problem and the way forward:
Every breath we are inhaling at the moment is toxic. How have we reached this point?
Nobody is really serious about pollution is all I can say. It’s not sudden. In fact, pollution last year was worse than it is this year. What we don’t realise is that we aren’t taking adequate steps to bring down pollution. Whatever we are doing is too little, too late.
The kind of pollution that we are seeing now is in the entire region — it’s not just Delhi; Patna is more polluted. Anywhere you start placing pollution monitoring equipment, you realise that the air you breathe is toxic.
And please don’t underestimate the health impact of this. This is really serious. It’s time we realised that if we don’t get serious about tackling air pollution, we will have such episodes throughout winter. Also be clear that this is not just about Punjab and Haryana and the burning of crops. What we saw this time was a weather pattern which basically, they are saying, brought winds from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. This brought a lot of dust, huge wind storms which collided with the wind system coming from the east which was bringing moisture. And that is deadly because the moisture locks in the dust and becomes a cloud. At the same time there was no wind at the ground level. So when you and I felt that we were suffocating, that is what it was. Delhi is equally to blame. The cars in Delhi today are choking us.
Are Punjab and Haryana to be blamed?
This time, Punjab and Haryana also contributed because of crop burning. But remember, in the months to come, when winter is severe, even when this factor (crop burning) goes, we will still have pollution. Last year, the peak came in December and January.
I don’t want to get into this great game of the Delhi government — every time there is this chaos they say, ‘What about Punjab? Punjab did it!’ I think it’s time we grew up and I would really urge our politicians to grow up because otherwise they are taking away our lives and the lives of our children.
Are the governments doing too little, too late? With every episode of severe air pollution, there is a mad rush to enforce urgent but temporary measures.
Absolutely! Please understand that the odd-even (car scheme) and the shutting of schools are all emergency actions. Last year, when we had a crisis like this in November, we had gone to court and said that there are two ways in which governments all over the world deal with this. One is that they have an emergency response, which is that when things are so bad they ask, ‘what do we do?’ Last year, nobody knew what to do; there was a sort of helplessness. And two, what we said (to the court) was that emergency plans are not substitutes for long-term measures. We need both because till you have your long-term measures kicking in, we must have a response.
So the court asked the Environment Ministry to come up with what is now called the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP). It’s now in force and we gave a report to the court on Monday on the implementation of the GRAP: what happened and what we learnt.
One of the big things we learnt was that yes, it was important to have the GRAP because at least the emergency plans could kick in other than the odd and even scheme which became a political football between the AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) and the NGT (National Green Tribunal). The other measures are being enforced across the NCR, not just Delhi.
So yes, there has been a response to the emergency. And according to IIT-M (Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology), Pune, this response plan has reduced pollution levels by about 15% (compared) to what it would have been over the weekend. So please realise that the kind of critical pollution levels that we see today would have been 20% higher if we hadn’t taken this emergency response. What we said to the court on Monday is that we need to improve this.
There are four problems that we have noticed. One, the forecasting data were very poor. On November 6, we had no indication of the kind of cloud and the weather pattern that would change. It was on 7th, when pollution spiked, that we were told that pollution levels are high. We immediately directed action. But then it takes time for governments to gear up and take action, which, to their credit, they did. By 8th, orders had been passed and by the next day everything was enforced. But the fact is that we needed data earlier, so we are now talking to the Indian Meteorological Department to say that we have to integrate weather forecast with pollution monitoring.
The second thing that we have told the court is that we need a better system and protocol in place to inform people about spiked pollution levels.
Third, we are saying this plan is weak because a comprehensive plan hasn’t been put in place. For instance, one of the big issues of GRAP is that when pollution spikes — say, in Paris — a protocol is put in place and you ramp up public transport. Paris makes public transport free. Or you intensify public transport, increase car parking costs, and take the pressure off cars. And if it doesn’t sort out, the next stage is the odd and even scheme.
Do we have the infrastructure to bring in long-term and emergency measures to ensure that we don’t find ourselves in this state again?
In our case we have no public transport. Because for four years you have done nothing about it besides blaming and passing the buck. Today what we have is a governance crisis. You remain in an emergency mode if you don’t deal with this crisis.
The facts of this crisis today are scary. We are in severe-plus (air quality) today, but we are in severe plus when every action in the book has been directed — construction is banned, industries are banned, thermal plants have been shut down, brick kilns have been banned, generator sets have been banned, the so-called public transport system has been intensified... The only thing we haven’t been able to do is to take the cars off the road. And despite all this, we are in severe-plus mode. It just tells you the scale of the problem and the scale of the intervention that is needed.
My problem today is that everyone is outraged but nobody backs a solution. Every time you propose a solution, somebody contests it and then getting that solution implemented takes the wind out of you. My question is, if clean air is everybody’s business, then why such opposition? What about the health of the people? What about the health of our children?
What does the EPCA propose as the way forward?
The EPCA has been given the responsibility of directing action as far as GRAP is concerned. We have directed action this time. We are not going to lift the severe-plus level unless the air quality improves for at least 48 hours. We are also going to try to improve GRAP so that it becomes more responsive and effective. We are going to be taking this up and fighting for it.
But beyond that, we need governments to step in, we need clean fuel — gas or electricity — not just for Delhi-NCR, but for the whole of India. And we have to have public transport on a scale that you can actually get rid of your car. Today we can’t enforce any car restriction measures because we have no public transport and everybody passes the buck around.
And then we need governance so that you don’t burn garbage, you manage your dust on the road, you make sure construction activities are limited… I mean, it’s not rocket science. But the point is, do we even have a government which is serious enough to see this through in the coming years, not just the few days when pollution is critical?
Is India displaying enough leadership at the state, national and international levels to ensure a better environment for its citizens?
Why is the government not accountable? And why are we taking it? Because we don’t have the ability to ask hard questions, we don’t look at air pollution as a serious issue, we get up when the crisis is happening and we go to sleep when the crisis is over. That’s the problem. And that is what the politicians know… they can play with our lives.
Everyone is complacent and people are suffering in every State. People in Haryana and Punjab are suffering as much as people in Delhi. What we have today is an assault. What we are not understanding is that this will not go away till we push back on a national scale. Not these wimpy actions... get a few buses, we will enforce a bit of a ban here and there... it will not work. Odd and even is an emergency action. In countries that brought this in, it was done as an emergency measure with no exceptions and for 24 hours.
Governments have to understand that the aim is pollution control, not theatre. We are mute spectators to a theatre that is happening today in front of us.
Does India have a strong voice when it comes to climate change and ensuring that it is able to become an environmentally safe nation?
India must have a real voice. To me what was most embarrassing, and my head hangs in shame, is when United Airlines declared that they will stop flying to Delhi because of the smog. My head hangs in shame knowing that my government imports all the garbage that the U.S. is exporting to us today. They are exporting pet coke (a petroleum industry byproduct) to us because they have domestic restrictions to use pet coke, because they care about their pollution. We are importing it because, as the Ministry said in court, it is a cheap fuel and there are economic interests involved. So let’s be clear. If we want to fight the climate war, we have to set our own house in order. And we can’t allow our heads to hang in shame and for us to be told that you are so polluted that we don’t even want to come to your country. I feel defeated… we just don’t seem to understand the enormity of it.
And we must have a strong voice internationally. Our fight on climate change is to argue for justice, equitable rights over the atmosphere. To strengthen this fight, we must make sure that we can hold our head up in front of the whole world.