Battling for Clean Air
The battle against pollution in the country’s capital goes to show that it can never be conclusively won, with the victor living happily ever after. In 1998, Delhi was held up as a model example of a metropolis that had successfully cleaned up its air. Of course, this was thanks to the Supreme Court which had played an activist role by ordering all public vehicles to switch over to compressed tural gas (CNG) as fuel. At once, the air quality dramatically improved — with the levels of killer fine dust called ‘respiratory suspended particulate matter’ (RSPM) falling continuously for nine years thereafter. But the backslide began from 2007, so much so that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has now marked Delhi as the most polluted city in the world. For long, Beijing had held the ‘first position’ in the list of polluted cities, but now Delhi’s air is twice as polluted compared to Chi’s capital. So how did Delhi’s success story turn into such a monumental failure? The reasons are not far to seek — a combition of government complacence and shocking iction, reckless consumption of diesel, mushrooming numbers of small industries, unregulated carrier transport, and never-ending construction running amok. CNG is doubtless a clean fuel, but its price is presently almost equal to diesel. For a long time, diesel was far cheaper than petrol with the Central government ignoring the demand to equalise their prices. As a consequence, the number of private diesel vehicles, particularly SUVs and luxury cars, has increased hugely in Delhi. Diesel is also used heavily to power gensets in shopping malls and mobile towers. The lack of curbs on diesel-guzzling transporter trucks entering the capital has led to estimated 80,000 tucks poisoning the air at night. Doctors have identified diesel as a dangerous fuel because its fumes are carcinogenic and contain lots of RSPM.
Some measures to combat pollution like cess on the sale of diesel, declaring markets as congestion-free zones, regulating the number of cars on the roads etc were proposed, but only the easiest measure of imposing cess was implemented in the capital. The rising air pollution has correspondingly led to ever higher numbers of respiratory and cardiovascular disease patients swamping Delhi’s hospitals, with some pollution studies giving an alarming picture of lungs of schoolchildren resembling those of heavy smokers. Doctors are even advising chronic patients to leave Delhi, particularly during the winter months when the thick smog over the capital turns toxic. The tiol Green Tribul (NGT) has now banned all diesel vehicles over 10 years old in Delhi and adjoining cities. Earlier it had ordered all vehicles more than 15 years old, off Delhi streets to clean up the capital’s air, with the bans applying to both private and commercial vehicles. All eyes are now on the Supreme Court, in the expectation that the apex court will again force the Central and Delhi governments to begin the next round of reforms to check pollution and help improve public health. The experience of Delhi should make Northeastern states sit up and take notice. For long, the air of the region has been pristine, but pollution is assuming mecing proportions in several towns and cities. Solid waste and pollution of water bodies, along with noise and light pollution need to be tackled differently. But polluted air affects almost all residents equally. There are serious doubts about the sincerity of the Assam Transport department in enforcing motor vehicles to carry ‘pollution under control’ certificates throughout the State, with reports of many pollution testing stations issuing certificates for extra money without even seeing the vehicle. In Guwahati, vehicular emission and dust are major contributors to the city’s deteriorating air quality. Growing traffic congestion, use of adulterated fuel, inefficient engines and poor maintence of motor vehicles along with increasing urban construction are factors posing problems not only for Guwahati, but also other Northeast cities like Shillong which has been witnessing rapid decline in its green cover. A pro-active government and an informed public must be constantly vigilant about the monitoring of pollution, the importance of regular testing, and taking timely mitigating measures. Because once the air turns bad, there is no escape from it, whether outside or inside the home.