This appeared in The Economic Times (Delhi) on Jan 31 2015
When I informed a good friend in Mumbai about my intention to participate in the Delhi Half-Marathon last November, she asked, “With or without the mask?“ A typical Mumbaikar’s retort for Delhi. She might have been half-serious, but she wasn’t wrong. The problem of air pollution in our national capital has reached alarming levels. If for air pollution, we had a warning device like a fire-alarm for smoke, the blaring sirens would never stop in Delhi.
Air pollution is the most visible form of pollution in Delhi, particularly as winter smog. But all other forms, a direct reflection of our blatant disregard for the environment, are equally pervasive. A lot of hopes are now pinned on the ongoing case in Supreme Court on air pollution in Delhi. It is a sad reflection on our political and bureaucratic executive that we need court directions to formulate policies that are essential for public health. There are good reasons for this lack of trust. It was only after a court direction that Delhi saw the induction of LNG (liquefied natural gas) public transportation.
Even in the current case, pollution data submitted by the government has been challenged by other parties in court.
Earlier this month, a study by the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) challenged the ministry of environment and forest (MoEF)’s claim to Supreme Court that dust was responsible for 52.2% of the pollution load in Delhi while vehicles contributed only 6.6%. The IITM study says vehicles contributed 32% of the total particulate matter of size 2.5 micron (PM 2.5) and less in 2010. The figure has since risen to 36%.
The major challenge comes from increasing vehicular population in Delhi, besides industrial air pollution, waste-burning and pollution from thermal power plants. The pol lution problem is also linked to the proliferation of diesel generators in the city. The burning of post-harvest rice stalks from surrounding states causes smog during Delhi winters.
It is expected that the apex court will issue directions for the government to act on these issues.
In all fairness to the central government, the MoEF did seek public comments after it put out the firstever draft proposal on air quality index and health alert last October.
According to the Union environment minister, “Now one number, one colour and one description will help people understand the quality of air they are breathing.” But one index is not enough. There has been no democratically-elected government in Delhi for nearly a year now. Even when Delhi does get a government, it does not come with the single-point authority of other state governments. There are fundamental problems with the governance structure of the National Capital Territory (NCR) of Delhi which do not allow for cohesive action.
Between the municipal corporations and 100 other urban bodies – local agencies, boards and authorities – the state government has a limited role to play. Civic bodies and Delhi Police come under the Union home ministry while Delhi Development Authority reports to the Union urban development ministry. Similarly, six different agencies handle drains, sewerage and water pipes while five civic bodies and the PWD upkeep the roads.
This multiple jurisdiction system is unfair to the people of Delhi who elect their state government with great hope. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised Delhi full statehood in his Lok Sabha election manifesto and we expect him to keep his word. An empowered state government can then act on – and be held accountable for – all issues including the environment and the public health of Delhi’s citizens.
One final thing. My Mumbaikar friend was absolutely right. I didn’t get the timing I had expected to get during the Delhi Half-Marathon. Although it was due to a bad stitch early in the race, I could have very much blamed air pollution for my result. There is scientific data collected by the Centre for Science and Environment to back my excuse, if I had made one.
Between 7 and 8 am at India Gate, when I, along with other runners, was edging towards the half-way mark , the PM 2.5 levels were as high as 815 microgram per cubic metre (μg per cum). The safe level is 60 μg per cum.
My running travails apart, it is for the good of the citizens of Delhi that we bring a stop to the damage wreaked on our environment.