Lifting the smog from pollution

It’s mid-December, and still, irrespective of discussions, debates and suggestions, the overall air quality index (AQI) of Delhi, as recorded by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), remains ‘poor’.

It has been established that NCR’s pollution woes are not merely due to bursting of Diwali crackers, but also stubble burning in neighbouring states, biomass burning, rising vehicular emissions, and industrial pollution, power plants and restaurants being major offenders. Accumulated dust, ‘trapped’ when there are no winds, from large-scale construction work is another major pollutant.

GoI introduced the Graded Response Action Plan to combat this menace in October. Under this, air pollution levels are monitored closely by CPCB, and any spike is countered with a temporary ban on construction work, diesel generators and waste-burning, alongside ‘odd-even’ car rationing, mechanised watering of roads, and closure of brick kilns and stone crushers.

This has somewhat improved the situation, but we need to maintain the momentum in this battle.

Till not long ago, Beijing was grappling with a similar problem. Its successful strategy is worth emulating, especially given the similarities with NCR in terms of population pressure, industrial activity, etc. The Chinese implemented a systematic policy suite focusing on:

Reduced use of coal and increased investments in renewable energy.

Reduced infield burning, and wise crop residue management through alternative uses.

Quotas to limit new vehicles and retiring old polluting vehicles, while strengthening the mass rapid transport system.

A greening drive in the form of setting up urban forests and parks.

A potential congestion cess, and buildings having internal green belts to purify air.

While India has embarked on the journey to address similar problems plaguing the NCR, this must be backed by a strict enforcement regime. It implies regular inspections and prompt penalties for any breaches. An in tegrated plan with proper policy coordination between Delhi and its neighbouring states is also critical. Such a plan must set predefined targets for curbing pollution from various sources, in a time-bound manner.

Alternate end-use market for crop residues should also be looked at.

Earlier last month, furniture and home appliance MNC Ikea announced that it is planning to get Indian farmers to sell it the straw left after harvest, instead of burning it, for the company’s cardboard and particle board requirements. Stubble could also make entrepreneurial sense for the incentivised farmer if used for converting biomass to energy.

Industry also needs to get into the act. In October, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) set up a ‘Task Force for Making NCR Less Polluted’.

It has already launched pilot programmes across Punjab that can be scaled up. Corporate members have adopted villages, and are training farmers to use subsidised modern technology to better manage crop residue. Other programmes to be implemented include adopting best available technological interventions to mitigate pollution from construction work and industrial units, switch to clean-fuel technologies like multi-fuel injection kits for diesel generator sets, and exploring enhanced usage of recycled products in construction and infrastructure projects.

Air pollution is a crisis that must be seen as such. And to mitigate it, we must work together for the long haul.