Why a Delhi-centric approach to address India’s deadly air pollution problem won’t work

Air pollution does not recognize borders, it moves.
Why a Delhi-centric approach to address India’s deadly air pollution problem won’t work
Why a Delhi-centric approach to address India’s deadly air pollution problem won’t work

On the eve of the 32nd Anniversary of the Bhopal Gas Disaster, the Supreme Court of India passed a landmark order directing the government of India to notify and implement a Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) to address Delhi’s deadly smog crisis.

Taking cue from cities like Singapore and Beijing, the GRAP classifies Air quality in four categories – poor, very poor, severe and emergency, based on the Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 and 10 concentrations.

When implemented, each category would trigger a set of interventions ranging from ban on waste burning and better pollution control technology for coal power plants/brick kilns (very poor) to the closure of power plants, ban on the entry of diesel trucks and construction activities across Delhi (emergency).

But is the dreaded winter Airpocalypse just a Delhi problem? As residents of Chennai and reluctant visitors to Delhi, we have had a chance to experience the air quality in both cities. Needless to say, it would be healthier to skip the morning Pranayama in Delhi for most of the year. However, that does not make breathing in Chennai or other Indian cities safer?

A WHO report of the worst polluted cities in 2016 puts Delhi in the 5th place after Gwalior, Allahabad, Patna and Raipur. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) operates around 60 air-monitoring stations across 12 states. Though, most did not generate any data, the readings from some of the operational centers were unprecedented.

We randomly selected a few operational ones located at Maninagar Ahmedabad, Central School Lucknow and Manali Chennai, and analysed the data between October and November 2016. The results were shocking.

On certain days, like the October 29, the PM2.5 level in Ahmedabad was 4421 Micrograms per Cubic Meter of Air (ug/m3) as opposed to 307ug/m3 in Delhi’s R.K Puram. In other words, it was 10 times worse than Delhi.

Similarly, on the November 7, the PM2.5 level in Lucknow was 506ug/m3 as opposed to 439ug/m3 in R.K Puram Delhi.

The permissible limit for PM2.5 in India is 60 ug/m3.

If the four categories of GRAP were to be applied, Ahmedabad, Lucknow and Chennai experienced 14, 9 and 1 days of severe/emergency levels of pollution respectively. In addition, there were at least 29 days of poor to very poor air quality in Ahmedabad, 36 in Lucknow and 31 in Chennai.

CPCBs findings suggest that people in all the major cities are exposed to very poor and emergency like situations as bad as, or on some days worse than, Delhi.

In this context, where does the Court’s order stand and does it do enough to address the crisis?

To begin with, air pollution does not recognize borders, it moves. A modeling study conducted by the European Monitoring and Evaluation Program (EMEP) in 2010 titled ‘Hemispheric Transport of Air Pollution’, describes how air pollutants travel between continents. So, plumes from coal plants in Chattisgarh could end up in Delhi’s air and vice versa.

GRAPs success lies in the scope of its application. It would be ill-advised to limit such interventions to geographic boundaries. GRAP should be a national policy applicable to all polluted regions of the country.

However, to achieve smog free cities, interventions like GRAP can only be coping mechanisms and not solutions. That said, it could be a crucial first step in the long list of interventions that would be required to make our cities safer to breathe in. We need to build a comprehensive body of knowledge to understand the nature of air pollution and its dispersion in the sub-continent along with a robust mechanism for monitoring and citizen participation. In the meanwhile, keep the masks on!

Dharmesh Shah is a public policy expert working on issues of environmental health and pollution.

Shweta Narayan is the coordinator of Healthy Energy Initiative, India investigating the links between energy choices and their health impacts. 

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