Urban Drive Environment

Mining for trouble

I was diagnosed with asthma around five years ago. This was after two years of dealing with chronic cough and respiratory issues that a bunch of doctors failed to link to a cause. Several tests later, the reason circled back to my former organisation’s basement office: dingy, with unclean AC ducts and filters, and zero natural ventilation. The city’s rising pollution levels didn’t help either. Thanks to a health issue brought on by the surrounding built environment, like many others I too am at higher risk of contracting Covid-19 today. While I had the privilege of paying for the many doctor appointments and tests for my diagnosis, those belonging to vulnerable communities don’t have this easy access. So who comes to their rescue when pollution levels continue to rise across the country amidst a raging virus that attacks the respiratory system?

As the lockdown eases across the country, air pollution levels are bound to go back to pre-Covid levels. We’re already seeing a spike in New Delhi and Gurugram and it’s only a matter of time before numbers from other cities are analysed. Vehicular emissions continue to be overlooked, polluting materials like coal are prioritised with tax exemptions and subsidies, industrial projects are approved without necessary environmental clearances… our environment is being ravaged in countless ways. The one grabbing eyeballs over the last few weeks is coal power, industries, and their disastrous impact on our surroundings.

A recent report by non-profit Climate Risk Horizon highlights how coal-fired power plants play a significant role in India’s air pollution crisis and the unfolding climate emergency. It states: ‘The financial costs from air pollution in India are now well-documented — an estimated 5.4% of GDP. It is inevitable that all coal power plants will have to install pollution control technologies, or face growing litigation and political pressure in the coming years’.

In addition, coal and non-coal mineral prospecting and solar photovoltaic projects do not need prior environmental clearance or permission in the Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2020 drafted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).

After a lot of pressure from activists and courts, the ambitious National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) was launched last year. It proposed a 20-30% reduction in air pollution by 2024. Initially criticised for its legal loopholes and selection of ‘non-attainment’ cities, NCAP has now failed to show any reduction in pollution levels in the one year since its launch. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman went on to allocate ₹4,400 crore for the NCAP in this year’s budget but apart from a show of numbers and jargon, nothing much is happening on-ground.

Late last month, the National Green Tribunal slammed the MoEF over its NCAP report. A recent story in this newspaper mentions that under the NCAP, the target was to achieve norms in 10 years and reduce load to the extent of 35% in the first three years with further reductions later. The NGT pointed out that ‘pollution would remain unaddressed for 10 years which was too long a period of tolerating violations when clean air was Right to Life. Further, it was not clear what type of pollutants or all pollutants would be reduced’. The tribunal said the violation of air pollution levels resulting in a large number of deaths and diseases needed to be addressed expeditiously.

What we need is strict implementation of policies and for officials to take the issue seriously. Industries must switch to natural gas from coal, but coal is cheaper as it has been placed under GST and under open general license to enable easy import. On the contrary, natural gas is heavily taxed. A report by the Centre for Science and Environment says: “Bring natural gas under GST to reduce the tax burden and to incentivise clean fuel over its dirty counterparts. Remove coal from OGL so that imports can be regulated and its use monitored.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who launched an auction for 41 coal blocks for commercial mining this year, has been criticised by the UN for subsidising fossil fuels and promoting coal auctions. Environmental impact aside, it doesn’t bode well for India’s energy footprint. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently said, “Clean energy and closing the energy access gap... are the ticket to growth and prosperity. Yet, here in India, subsidies for fossil fuels are still some seven times more than subsidies for clean energy. The coal business is going up in smoke. The advantages of India’s renewable energy resources are plain to see. They are low cost, protected from volatile commodities markets, and offer three times the job potential of fossil fuel power plants.” Need I say more?

A fortnightly column on environmental sustainability and urban issues

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Printable version | Oct 23, 2020 5:37:25 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/on-deriving-power-political-and-industrial-from-the-most-polluting-means-possible/article32638325.ece

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