Delhi is suffocating. For most residents, life as they know it has come to a virtual standstill. With the Air Quality Index reading “severe” over the past few days, parents and teachers have curtailed the time children spend outdoors, schools are shut, people with lung and heart diseases are suffering acute episodes, normal people are finding it difficult to breathe, and those who have a choice are fleeing the city. As Delhi grapples with its worst smog in recent years, the anguish of citizens is palpable.
This anguish stems from the fact that rhetoric from the elected representatives and implementation of schemes have done little to remedy the pollution situation. Why does Delhi find itself in this paradoxical situation? One explanation is that most interventions (implemented or proposed) that have penetrated political and public consciousness are short term in nature. We have chosen these at the peril of ignoring deeper, politically harder, structural reforms and science-based thinking, policy and action. For instance, the impact of the much-publicised odd-even scheme remains unclear even as an emergency measure to reduce pollution. The Council on Energy, Environment and Water’s (CEEW) independent evaluation of the odd-even scheme found that whereas there were modest declines in traffic volumes, it had no significant impact on pollution levels.
While it was an important social experiment, we mistakenly accepted one initiative as a substitute for more comprehensive action. Here are three perspectives on adopting a medium- to long-term approach for pollution control.
First, minor reductions in pollution do not reduce health risks significantly. The Global Burden of Disease finds that health impacts of pollution are non-linear. This means that significant declines in adverse health outcomes for Delhi and other polluted Indian cities will only be realised when pollution levels reach National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Therefore, any strategy requires us to understand the portfolio of policies (across transport, energy, waste and trans-boundary issues), which will help us meet our air quality standards by a designated date (example, 2020). This requires sophisticated tools for air quality modelling and economic analyses. Yet, few reports from the Central or State Pollution Control Boards (CPCB, SPCBs) have attempted this kind of analysis. Most studies stop at a source-apportionment analysis. Without this perspective, we would be tempted to go with populist (often unscientific) solutions to control pollution. Simply vacuuming roads and sprinkling water will not cut it.
Second, enhance the capacity of the CPCB and the SPCBs. Pollution monitoring, regulation and control are complex, technical issues and require trained manpower. CPCBs and SPCBs are required to provide scientific inputs needed to drive pollution control policies. Four institutions — CEEW, Public Health Foundation of India, Ricardo Energy and Environment, and the Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation — recently undertook a review of the processes of setting emissions standards. The study finds that the CPCB and SPCBs often lack resources, technical expertise and manpower. A lack of technical capacity precludes SPCBs from setting more stringent emissions standards, and manpower shortages prevent enforcing existing standards. An independent evaluation of the CPCB in 2010 found that it would need to fill 308 posts immediately to meet its targets. This has implications for controlling pollution from industrial clusters in and around Delhi, such as Faridabad and Ghaziabad. Upskilling of existing staff knowledge and coordination between the CPCB and SPCBs are essential, without which they will remain toothless watchdogs. This perspective has received less attention in the discourse on pollution control.
Power of technology
Third, leverage technology for innovative solutions. It is well understood that trans-boundary sources contribute 20-30 per cent to Delhi’s pollution. Whereas seasonal crop burning in Punjab and Haryana makes headlines, little is made of pollution from industrial clusters in Faridabad and Ghaziabad. Yet, we have barely considered developing the business models by which farmers can secure revenue from waste-to-energy projects or providing pollution control technologies to industrial clusters of small and medium enterprises. If the respective SPCBs are lacking in resources, some financial assistance could be provided from the Air Ambience Fund. The Fund had Rs.385 crore until March 2015 and a lot more would be needed. But it could be a start to use public funds as viability gap funding or as loan guarantees to reduce the cost of debt financing. Industries cannot completely escape any capital investment in pollution control technologies. But they can certainly be helped through cheaper finance.
Whereas these ideas do not span the universe of options available, they form a starting point to rethink our approach to pollution control in Delhi and other polluted cities across India. Delhi can be saved. For that, we have to stop sacrificing the science of pollution at the altar of short-term populist policies.
Hem H. Dholakia is Senior Research Associate with the CEWW, New Delhi.
Whereas seasonal crop burning in Punjab and Haryana makes headlines, little is made of pollution from industrial clusters in Faridabad