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Air in Delhi: Here Are Solution

Let’s do a horizontal level solution discussion with a small spillover to the vertical.

Photo Credit : Reuters


Air quality or lack of it, as it is in Delhi is an accumulation of everything, mostly long neglect of governance. Add the drying up of a river as glorious as Yamunaji and you have the final proof. 

There are focused institutions, professionals, studies, ministries who are at it, full time since decades. It has not improved the air which is not a comment on the reports. Air and water belong equally to you and me. So I delve in to this complex topic as a discussion with a fellow citizen. 

In health management there are horizontal programmes (clean air, water, etc) and vertical programmes (medicines et all). We need both. Many vertical programmes are I am sure implemented. Obviously it's not enough. I can give you doses of medicine, but if each time, I give you filthy water, you won't be cured. Let’s do a horizontal level solution discussion with a small spillover to the vertical.

At a common sense level, there are six main solution areas.

1. Governance structures and the limitation of the Constitution of India which relegates ideology to 'higher matters of the State" and trees, their cutting, water, air, sewage to municipal levels. In my view this 19th century mindset will drown us in the 21st century at multiple levels. I've written a book on this. We can go on, to the way governments are elected, administrators are appointed, sinecured and it's not hard to see that the structure at every level can't handle it. 

2. Delhi Metro is great but the story's growth seems to have slowed. Whoever killed trams in the 1950s is now a certified idiot. Light Rail Transit systems have to make a huge reappearance in India. Trams, metros have to co exist, as also monorails, buses. They together have to be under one integrated authority. It's expensive to remake Delhi's great roads, so neo metro trolley buses are one answer. For new roads please incorporate trams. Public transport has to progress, progress, progress. Nothing new at the scale needed is happening.  

3. Waste management is a technology that is twenty years old. It is yet to be operationalised across India despite thousands of foreign junkets taken in its name. Landfills are no answer and produce dangerous gases, (methane) leave millions of square yards as a poor inheritance to our succeeding generations. We need to leave the planet a better place than we found it, while improving our own air quality. If asked, I will do a full piece on this. 

4. Yamunaji. Cities that have a river flowing through it are amongst the most blessed. Except Delhi, all town planners through the ages, have made beautiful cities by making canals across the city. Delhi has made it's river a sewer and dried it up. Who puts untreated sewage in to rivers and oceans. It is this education mindset which comes from the prescriptive Constitution on what constitutes "higher matters of the State", that basics go wrong. Our inheritors will see us, our achievements less glamorously than we see ourselves. We struggle on basics, interpreting Constitution articles to effect change, when air and water are both collapsing. 

Water, flowing rivers particularly from a tributary of Gangaji which comes from the highest purest peaks, the abode of the Gods, purifies a lot more than we think. Natural birth is given to flora, fauna (unless we get municipal permission to cut them) which then adds to all round benefits from bio diversity. Anyways, even without the canals, 22km of Yamunaji left pure will take away a lot of ills. There is no single solution. 

5. Vehicles and their energy source. Much of it is excess and privilege driven. 11-13m vehicles with 3.5 million as cars is a lot. LPG is a limited solution as it's still a hydrocarbon. It only pollutes less at the point of discharge. Alternate fuels which alone seems to be in discussion but not in action are needed. EV is a complex subject. I will be happy to expand on it if invited, but it's a small part of the solution. 

Massive, convenience led public transportation, bifurcation of roads for walking, bicycles (there is a staggering 40% drop in bicycle use, while the opposite is happening abroad),  powered bicycles, sharing systems, an emphasis on comfort in public transportation are needed. 

But with a Central Govt, State Govt, three Municipalities, some Cantonment boards, where does all this responsibility fall? We are on a non starter line. Democracy is not the problem, the interpretation of it is. It's permanent bureaucracy at so many levels, its size, cost is a bigger problem. The vertical solutions are not our problem. Many brilliant minds exist. But your constitutional concept of steel frame is bureaucracy, not us, the citizen.  

6. Finally I come to the much blamed stubble burning. If invited to write again, we would link seamlessly this to Oil, Current Account deficit, national Income, foreign exchange, exchequer and development of the country in very tangible ways and it must be done. If I handle the topic holistically the emphasis will shift from Delhi's air, perhaps get confusing. Good solutions like good air bring many good things. 

Our lovely Punjab is being wrongly blamed. Chawal (paddy) was an imported delicacy for Punjabis. It was never grown locally. Punjab's agro traditions are centuries old. Now paddy is the main Kharif crop. From zero till and in 1980 to a shade under 200 Million tones now. We changed its character in 40 years. Two factors fuelled this. One done from Chandigarh, the other from Delhi. None by the farmer.  

(a) Free electricity, later, unmetered free electricity at a cost of Rs 15,000 odd crores. This shifted hand pumps to monoblock pumps to powerful submersible pumps. Delhiites worry about their air, Punjabites worry or should worry about the cancer elements appearing by this deep pull of ground water. Give them this Rs. 15000 crores, nobody will go this length to pull water. But governments like to prescribe not empower. A train between Bhatinda and Bikaner is locally called Cancer Express.  

(b) A politically set MSP on paddy that made it more remunerative.  

Now what happens is that paddy stubble is high in moisture, low in calorific content AND the farmer gets only 3-4 weeks to clear the field to start sowing wheat. 

Burning high moisture stubble means the fire smolders for days with high silica content. We blame the farmer or stubble burning or Punjab or Haryana. 

And guess what, the Rs 5000 per hectare the farmer asks for straw spreaders, reversible ploughs and combines to bury the straw so that nature decomposes it, is not being as freely given. 

A deeper solution would lie in removing the 'force feeding' towards growth of paddy, shifting MSPs towards regional, natural strengths of the geography and culture, reimagining inputs.

If you must force the direction of production; paddy must move to maize (the water, stubble issue goes). Many doable interventions mainly revised MSPs are needed),  than move maize to production of ethanol, then making  ethanol addition in petrol mandatory at 10%- called Gasohol (all technologies are fully stabilized, extensively used). This makes the increase in MSP, a less for more game. But then after all this, you have to push the refinery to learn more, do more, change their  focus from the vanilla profits from just conversion of crude. Oil imports will reduce by 10% (it's approx USD 110bn) which will save some 10 billion dollars. This can be reployed in the economy to increase jobs, increase farmer income by 20%, cleaner water, air, is yours. It is hard work. Most countries, people do such meticulous hard work as a daily routine.  

All this in bits and pieces is well known. Combining it across Petroleum, Agriculture, Rural Development, Municipal, State Govt, all their babu's, Ministries, then their political masters and you have the air you have. There is no outcome driven, multidisciplinary governance structure in the Constitution. Most countries make the average person become good, through structure. We do reverse and then blame the person.  

Knowledge, technology, imagination, people are not the problem. The Constitutional structure's lack of ease, conflict of interest with the solution in each silo, governance is our problem. Solve that, clean air follows. Nature is very forgiving.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Atul Khanna

Atul Khanna is a serial entrepreneur, owns Tooltech, a leading transportation design company. He has authored a book, Between You and Me- Flight to Societal Moksha, on Constitutional and governance reform for 21st century India.

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