Fight pollution collectively

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Fight pollution collectively

Wednesday, 16 October 2019 | Navdha Malhotra

Carpooling, using public transport, segregating waste to reduce burning, choosing not to burst firecrackers at Diwali can make a big difference

The Diwali season comes with many debates: Does a ban on firecrackers make a difference? Could we have prepared better? Has the national Capital’s air pollution decreased? What can Delhiites do to help bring it down?

This year the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Government announced a series of measures to tackle air pollution, including the odd-even vehicle rationing scheme; distribution of masks to prevent PM10 intake; a community pyrotechnic show for Diwali; mechanised road-sweeping; a tree plantation drive and a pollution plan for 12 hot spots. In September, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said that according to the air quality data of the last four years, the pollution levels in Delhi had reduced by 25 per cent. While the data is still being examined, this indicates a positive step in the fight for a cleaner Delhi.

In the past, there have been many claims and counter-claims over the impact of the odd-even scheme implemented in the Capital. While some studies indicated that it was a success, others claimed that there was no impact, and still others contended that it was impossible to isolate vehicular pollution from Delhi’s data sets. However, the one thing all studies agree on is that the odd-even scheme will not succeed without a robust public transport system and without restrictions placed on heavy vehicles and two-wheelers, which make up the majority of Delhi’s vehicular traffic. In the past, the scheme provided exclusions for two and three-wheelers, trucks, taxis and cars used by VIPs. These exemptions, and the limited hours of the odd-even scheme, made it harder to define the success of the project, especially as two-wheelers have the highest emissions levels. At the moment, the Delhi Metro and bus fleet are not equipped to keep up with the existing demand from commuters, let alone the demand that will be generated during vehicular rationing days. However, the undeniable benefit of the scheme is decreased congestion on the city’s roads. This cuts down the number of hours citizens spend in their cars and the pollution caused by congestion. The scheme is a step in the right direction but it alone cannot solve the problems of vehicular pollution.

Given these concerns, the next logical solution would be to consider electric vehicles (EVs) and particularly electric public transport. Several cities around the country have committed to electric bus fleets and feeder buses and should these measures be implemented, they will certainly have a positive impact on air pollution. However, cutting down on tailpipe emissions is only half the battle. As long as EVs are powered by traditional electricity, they still contribute to fossil fuel emissions, just perhaps not in the same city they are driven in. EVs are a step in the right direction but not enough to tackle the air pollution crisis, unless they become solar powered in the future.

Like the different sources of the problem, the solutions to our air quality issues are also varied and complex. Pollution does not acknowledge State or city boundaries and our solutions must transcend these as well. Central and State Governments must work together to ensure heavy industrial and vehicular activity is kept outside cities; equitable and environmental solutions for stubble burning are implemented as quickly as possible; industrial activity is heavily regulated and fuel emission standards for vehicles continue to advance. Most importantly, this Government needs to ensure that air quality is monitored adequately and that the data is shared so that the benefits of schemes like odd-even can be evaluated.

At the moment, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has a woefully incomplete monitoring network, with data gaps for many pollutants and locations. The newly-released National Clean Air Plan (NCAP) fails to include many of the Indian cities that require policy action and doesn’t give local authorities the enforcement power they need to penalise offenders. As citizens, it often feels like there is little we can do beyond voting for the right candidate every few years. Installing air purifiers, limiting physical activity and wearing masks outside allows those who can afford it a break from the air pollution but it does not solve the issue. Each individual can take certain proactive actions: Carpooling and using public transport cut vehicular emissions. Ensuring that waste is segregated before it is discarded cuts down waste burning as does limiting open garbage and leaf burning in the winter.  During Diwali, choosing not to burn firecrackers can make a massive difference, as we have seen in the last decade in New Delhi.

However, it is clear that only stringent policy can create the kind of widespread change that is needed to tackle air pollution. To make this happen, citizens must encourage their representatives to take action through their votes and their voice. Elections will be held in several States soon, including Delhi. We must make our priorities known to our leaders by raising our voices and demanding a better standard of air quality from our representatives.

(The writer is a social campaigns manager)

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