Menaka Guruswamy writes: Pollution is a governance issue — one that has long been neglected by the political class, despite contributing to our truncated life spans. This, coupled with the fact that pollution, despite its health and economic consequences, is not a priority issue for most voters, makes it a deadly compact of mutual apathy.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court heard public interest litigation that sought to ask the court to intervene urgently to ban stubble burning in Punjab as it was contributing to the horrific levels of pollution that we are experiencing in Delhi at present. The Court will hear the case in due course. But it posed a key question: Is this a matter for a court of law?
Pollution is a governance issue — one that has long been neglected by the political class, despite contributing to our truncated life spans. Our children are growing up unhealthy, while being kept home from school due to bad air, and our public health system is overburdened with toxic air-related health conditions. What is surprising is the apathy toward the carcinogenic air quality of the NCR region by our ruling class. This, coupled with the fact that pollution, despite its health and economic consequences, is not a priority issue for most voters, makes it a deadly compact of mutual apathy.
How bad is our air quality? A study published in 2012 in the Indian Journal of Cancer notes that 40 per cent of all lung cancer cases in India are found in non-smokers. This is the highest proportion for any country, and these numbers were rising. The reason why non-smokers are presenting lung cancer in such high numbers is deeply intertwined with pollution.
Let’s look around us. Sure, it’s that time of the year again, when Delhi is particularly like a sepia-tone film. Everywhere you look, it’s brownish grey to a dark yellowish brown, deteriorating to dark grey. If we think that these gruesome colours are a phenomenon only during these three weeks spanning Diwali and a fortnight after, we’re very wrong. This is a year-round phenomenon and is not likely to be cured by addressing stubble burning alone.
One of the most definitive reports on the causes of and solutions to pollution is the Comprehensive Study on Air Pollution and Green House Gases in Delhi, authored by Mukesh Sharma and Onkar Dikshit, professors at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur and published in January 2016. Importantly, the report was sponsored by the Department of Environment, Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi (NCT) and the Delhi Pollution Control Committee. You might expect these entities of our government to implement the findings. No such luck.
The report is educational, provides a diagnosis and recommends solutions to our toxic air. Hence it must be read by all of us. It has five major components, (i) air quality measurements (ii) emission inventory (iii) air quality modelling (iv) control options (v) action plan. It sets up the numbers that define our recommended air quality as envisaged by the Air Act, 1981 and resultant rules and norms. Against these standards, there is the reality of the emission numbers as they exist.
First, some important background: There are two kinds of particulate or microscopic matter suspended in the air — PM10 and PM2.5. PM10 are comparatively coarser particles that irritate our eyes, nose, and throat. PM2.5 are more dangerous since they get into and stay embedded deep in our lungs and blood. (Hello lung cancer!) All through the year, in the summer and winter months, the PM10 and PM2.5 levels are almost four-seven times higher than the national air quality standards.
What are the causes of bad air in Delhi? The report makes clear that on an annual basis, the top four contributors to PM10 emissions are road dust (56 per cent), concrete batching (10 per cent), industrial point sources (10 per cent) and vehicles (9 per cent). The top four contributors to PM2.5 emission load are road dust (38 per cent), vehicles (20 per cent) domestic fuel burning (12 per cent) and industrial point sources (11 per cent). All of this varies seasonally, especially in the context of emissions in general.
In terms of air quality alone, in winter the major culprits for both PM10 and PM2.5 are secondary particles (25-30 per cent), vehicles (20-25 per cent), biomass burning (17-26 per cent) and municipal solid waste burning (MSW, 8-9 per cent). In summer, this changes somewhat to include coal and fly ash (26-37 per cent), soil and road dust (26-27 per cent), secondary particles (10-15 per cent), biomass burning (7-12 per cent), vehicles (6-9 per cent) and MSW burning (7-8 per cent). The contribution of biomass burning in winter is quite high — 17 per cent for PM 10 and 26 per cent for PM2.5. The report makes clear that the enhanced concentration of PM in October-November is likely due to post-monsoon crop residue burning (CRB).
What does the report suggest by way of solutions? Here are some of the many recommendations. There are approximately 9,000 hotels or restaurants in Delhi, which use coal (mostly in tandoors). Their PM emission in the form of fly ash is large. The report proposes that all restaurants with a seating capacity of more than 10 persons must not be allowed to use coal and must shift to electric or gas-based appliances. Delhi also has two large power plants, which are also important sources of fly ash. There are ways to reduce this cause of fly ash production as well. Our policymakers only need to read this report. Ready-mix concrete that is used for construction activities has about 35 per cent fly ash in it. Control measures include windbreakers, bag filters at silos, curtains, telescopic chutes and covering of transfer points.
What about vehicles? Vehicular pollution is the second-largest and most consistently contributing source to PM10 and PM2.5 in winter. The scientists who prepared the report suggest various options, including the implementation of BS VI emission norms, the introduction of electric and hybrid vehicles, traffic planning, retro-fitment of diesel exhaust, and improvement in public transport.
We are a dusty city and hence our soil and road dust comprise a substantial portion of pollutants. The report makes clear that in summer this source can contribute about 26 per cent to PM10 and PM2.5. The silt load on some of Delhi’s roads is very high and silt can become airborne with the movement of vehicles, particularly in the dry summer season. As per the IIT report, the estimated PM10 emission from road dust is over 65 tons a day. However, there are easy solutions, including vacuum sweeping of the major roads four times a month, carpeting of shoulders and mechanical sweeping with water wash. So, many solutions are possible.
Finally, the eternal question: Where will the money come from to implement the recommendations? For a start, from the enormous advertising budgets spent by our governments detailing their achievements in a state where the people cannot breathe and will die of cancer in overwhelming numbers.