Authorities were aware of the impending environmental hazard but instead of a well thought out long-term strategy to tackle air pollution, our approach appears to be a classic case of ad-hocism
The London smog of November 1952 is considered to be the worst-ever such case of environmental hazard which led to the death of a few thousand people. Winston Churchill, who was the Prime Minister at that time, himself suffered a bronchial attack due to the toxic air. Even though the Clean Air Act came up only in 1956, stringent action had been initiated by the local authorities well before that, bringing in a dramatic improvement in the state of the environment in the city.
Back home, even though the National Green Tribunal (NGT), in the case of Ganga Lalwani vs Union of India (2015), had made burning of crop stubble a penal offence and additionally, formulated a National Policy for Management of Crop Residue, the result of the enforcement effort has been rather half-hearted and its dismal and disastrous results are being experienced by all of us in the form of a health emergency being declared in the Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR). According to medical experts, air pollution in Delhi-NCR is no longer just a health risk, it has become a hazard. Everyone in Delhi, particularly asthma patients, infants, children and the elderly are affected by this pollution. It doesn’t matter whether a person is a smoker or not, the toxic air people are breathing in is equivalent to smoking 15 to 20 cigarettes a day.
Except for the States of Odisha , Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, where some seriousness has been shown in combatting air pollution, the enforcement of the NGT’s orders and follow-up on the policy in some of the other States, particularly in Punjab and to some extent in Haryana, has been very poor.
However, according to an affidavit filed by the Central Government in the Supreme Court (SC), stubble burning has gone up by seven per cent in Punjab and gone down by 17 per cent in Haryana. In order to address this problem, a new Central scheme, “Promotion of Agricultural Mechanisation for In-Situ Management of Crop Residue in the States of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and NCT of Delhi,” was approved in 2018.
This provided for subsidising machinery required for in-situ management of the biomass, for which a sum of Rs 1,151.80 crore has been allocated for the period of 2018-2023. Out of this provision, Punjab has got the largest share. The objective of the scheme was to procure agricultural machinery and equipment for in-situ management of crop residue, create farm machinery banks and conduct multi-media awareness campaigns.
Delhi, leading the NCR with a combination of adverse factors, has already broken the world record for Air Quality Index (AQI), making the headlines bold and telling. But perhaps waking up will take some time. There is no dearth of authorities who are, and were aware of the impending environmental hazard, but instead of a well thought out long-term strategy or some short-term relief our approach appears to be a classic case of ad-hocism. For instance, it is now known that the burning of stubble is responsible for about 37 per cent of the pollution, which is more or less of a seasonal nature. For the remaining, it is understood that two-wheelers, whose number in Delhi alone is 88 lakh, happen to be the source of about 33 per cent of the pollutants, while four-wheelers, whose number is about 35 lakh are responsible for just about 15 per cent of it.
In these circumstances, forcing some four-wheelers to be off the roads is bound to have just a marginal impact.
On the other hand, as is well known, the two-stroke two-wheelers and three-wheelers emit a far more hazardous mixture of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides, some of which like benzene are known to be carcinogenic, but their numbers continue to increase.
In respect of automobile emissions, complete combustion within the engine is essential to reduce the extent of pollutants. The four-stroke engine is cleaner because it burns pure petrol; the two-stroke engine, on the other hand, burns a combination of lubricating oil and petrol and a fair amount of the oil is emitted as unburnt vapour.
Some 94 per cent of the two-and three-wheelers in India are powered by two-stroke engines that are simple and compact in design, cheap and easy to maintain. But the conventionally-designed two-stroke engines produce high levels of hydrocarbons in exhaust emissions — 5,500 parts per million (ppm), compared to 850 ppm from four-stroke engines. According to a research at the Indian Institute of Petroleum at Dehradun, four-stroke engine-powered motor cycles have been observed to emit just one-sixth to one-tenth of the hydrocarbons emitted by two-stroke engines. In addition, their fuel economy is better by 20 to 50 per cent. However, manufacturers prefer two-stroke engines because they are more powerful and have greater pick-up. In the long run, electricity-powered two-wheelers could be a suitable alternative. The latest figures available for usage of public transport in Delhi indicate that the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) and Delhi Metro carry just 12 and 10 per cent respectively of the entire commuter traffic.
This is an extremely low proportion and obviously leading to a much greater usage of highly polluting two-wheelers. Obviously, we have to create conditions for encouraging greater ridership on public transport. At the same time we must ensure a larger number of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) fuel stations so as to reduce the waiting time, since mostly these cater to public transport vehicles or taxis.
Last year a group of industries had conducted a pilot project in two districts of Punjab covering an area of 16,000 acres of farm land, where 25,000 tonnes of rice straw were processed and converted into fibre-based cellulosic products. The details of the project need to be analysed to enlarge its scope.
The apex court has pulled up the Government of India as well as the Delhi Government for “passing the buck” even as Delhi and nearby areas face a public health emergency due to the severe air pollution.
Further, the Centre has been asked to call environmental experts including those from the Indian Institutes of Technology so that their views on the current situation could be taken into account for suitable directives. It can thus be easily observed that a rational public policy based on scientific inputs needs to be operationalised while ensuring its stringent implementation and monitoring.
(The author is a former Governor and a Senior Advisor at the Pranab Mukherjee Foundation