A spike in air pollution in India during October and November has become an annual phenomenon. The good news is that the number of ‘good’, ‘satisfactory’ and ‘moderate’ days in Delhi has gone up to 182 in 2019 as compared to 159 in 2018, 152 in 2017 and 108 in 2016, according to data from the Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations (CAAQMS). In an exclusive interview, Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar talks to Jyotika Sood about government plans to control air pollution and the need for public participation. Edited excerpts:
How long will India take to have clean air?
There is no sunset date as far as pollution is concerned. Rising industry and vehicles may be using cleaner fuels and cleaner technologies that help in reducing pollution. But it’s a continuous situation where you have to work actively, especially when the problem arises. So as the problem rises, you have to address it by rising in your actions.
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We will be cleaner, cleaner and cleaner every year despite the rising pollution load caused by rising population, more industry, more vehicles, and heavy dust due to demolition activities and construction. We have taken enough care so that the pollution load from each is rising very slowly or getting reduced.
Air pollution is back with the onset of winter. What is the long-term solution?
The problem of pollution is serious and particularly so in the Gangetic belt, and more particularly in Delhi. Delhi is in a trough-like situation. So during winters the Himalayan winds and moisture from the Ganga create a peculiar situation. If you look at the country’s map of pollution, the worst pollution is seen throughout the Gangetic belt and not just in the Delhi-NCR region. Bangalore has the same traffic and industry load like Delhi, yet they don’t have a pollution load like Delhi. Thus, geography is also a major factor for Delhi’s air pollution crisis.
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There are four major causes of pollution: vehicle pollution, dust pollution, industrial pollution and waste-related pollution. Each contributes 25 per cent to overall pollution. In winters, there is the additional contribution from stubble burning in October and November, but that’s for a limited period. If you see last year’s pollution map, you can understand the contribution of stubble burning. For four or five days, it contributed 12-13 per cent of total air pollution, 25 per cent and above for six days, eight per cent for four, 10 per cent for three days, and eight per cent and above for four days. There are just 20 days of stubble burning, so what about pollution during the other days? On the day of maximum pollution, stubble burning contributed only 44 per cent. This means 50 per cent of the pollution is here.
Has the NDA done enough to tackle air pollution?
Since Atalji’s time, the NDA government has done three things: moved polluting industries away from Delhi, introduced CNG buses and started the Delhi Metro. These three measures were major contributors to reducing pollution.
Unfortunately, from 2004 to 2014, nothing much happened and the situation got worsened. Even the media was quiet. It was only in 2014 that the media woke up and got interested in the conversation on air pollution. Modiji recognised the problem and started immediate action with a long-term vision.
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Acceptance of a problem is the beginning of its solution. We first launched the Air Quality Index and today it’s available for over 300 cities, although just 122 of them are polluted. We started 24x7 monitoring of 4,500 polluting industries. Then we started seriously tackling vehicular pollution. The eastern and western peripheral expressways, which were languishing for 10 years, were completed and 60,000 trucks passing through Delhi were diverted. It has helped to reduce the burden to some extent.
We also closed down the Badarpur and Sonipat power plants. Congestion points like Dhaula Kuan in Delhi were removed and new roads were built and widened for smooth flow of traffic. We even migrated to BSVI norms, which is the most historical because BSVI-compliant vehicles along with BSVI fuel will reduce vehicular pollution by 80 per cent.
Many industries were removed and closed. There were no construction and demolition rules, and those rules were framed for the first time in India in 2016. Constructive measures like three factories producing side furniture for roads like tiles and dividers from debris were set up. To that extent, we have tried to resolve the dust problem. Use of smog guns and sprinkling of water on construction sites have also been mandated. After all, it is dust, moisture and the chilly weather that make the pollution worse.
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This year, the agriculture ministry’s research institute has come out with a formula that will decompose the crop in a 25-day window of the stubble burning, and we are experimenting with this on various lands in all states. We are doing our best and committed to do more.
Will the air quality be better this winter?
It’s already better. Let me tell you how things have moved in the last four years. The ‘good’ to ‘moderate’ air quality days, which were 108 in 2016, went up to 182 in 2019. And this is last year, not during the Covid lockdown. So, we have managed to go from 80 bad days to 80 good days. This is the story everywhere. However, it will take time.
I would also like to urge the public to contribute in whatever way they can. There were recent media reports stating that only 25 per cent of Indian vehicles have the ‘pollution under control’ certificate. People have to understand that it has to be done regularly and they should maintain their vehicles properly. They should also try to use public transport and use private vehicles only when absolutely necessary. The government is doing all it can by pushing e-rickshaws, infrastructure and electric vehicles. We have to continuously work on this.
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Are smog towers a viable solution?
The Supreme Court has asked to put up a smog tower, but its technology has not been proven anywhere. In fact, we are installing every new innovation for tackling air pollution in India. So, a smog tower will be installed in Delhi with the help of IIT, but that will take another six months. Once it is installed, we will know about its efficacy and costs.
Green crusaders allege that air quality standards in India are very low?
No! India is following the world standard. We are monitoring all the parameters to determine levels of air pollution. Anyone can come to my chamber and see how the eight important parameters, including sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, ozone, PM 2.5 and PM 5, etc—are being monitored 24x7.
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Are budgetary allocations for the environment ministry enough, considering the challenges?
Actions to tackle pollution have to be taken by the local governments and the state governments. The central government only comes out with special packages, which involves several ministries and thus it is not through the environment ministry’s budget. Our only regulatory body is the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), and we have formed 50 teams to visit spots and the hotspots and see how they are being managed.
What kind of Centre-state partnership is required for addressing pollution?
In 2016, I started with the first meeting of all the ministers of five states—Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi—because air pollution is not a municipal limit problem nor a state limit problem. It’s a problem of air shed, and air shed doesn’t know political boundaries. Therefore, I am trying to bring all stakeholders together so that everyone is taken into confidence. Instead of accusing each other, efforts should be made to work together to improve the situation.