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Clearing The Air

Leaving Delhi should not be the question. How to win this battle against pollution should be. Also, where will you go?

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These days, concerned about the toxic air of Delhi, many parents, particularly those with children who have asthma, ask me if they should leave the city. Many times, I am also told that they have decided to move away; they cannot take it anymore. It is a no-brainer, you would say. After all, Delhi is very polluted and we know that the air toxins are deadly for our health. Only the most diehard polluter — a manufacturer of diesel vehicles, for example — would argue that the current level of air pollution in Delhi is not hazardous. But is moving to another city our only option? Or can we stay and fight?

Well, it is time we stopped looking for excuses not to act. The sources of pollution are known. The action is also known. What is needed is to act. Who has to do what and by when? We also have the necessary directions from government or judiciary but we need to enforce compliance. No delays. Not anymore. It is literally a matter of life and death. Ours.

We know that combustion in vehicles, industry and thermal power plants and garbage is a key cause of pollution. Dust is an important source and its control requires enforcement and movement of vehicles on roads adds to its re-circulation. Then, what is needed is to improve the quality of fuel; vehicular emission technology and making mobility transitions so that we can reduce the sheer numbers (which translates into pollution) on our roads? We also need to manage our garbage in ways that we can segregate it at homes and compost it. We cannot burn it.

But we also know India’s tryst with air pollution control has always been contested. For instance, take the issue of advancement of vehicular emission and fuel standards. This was a game-changer around early 2000 and will be critical for future action to clean air in Delhi and across India. But in 1999, it took the Supreme Court to drive down the deadline, against the wishes of auto companies. Their battery of lawyers told court it was unnecessary; inconvenient and unimpactful (ring any bells?). It happened. And it helped to reduce emissions across cities.

In October 2016, the government notified that it will bring BS VI by 2020. This is an advancement over what was earlier scheduled to happen in 2028 and is happening against the wishes once again of the auto companies. This will be a game-changer, but it will take time. In the meantime, BS IV fuel (with 50 parts per million of sulphur as against 350 ppm in BS III) will be available nationwide by 1 April 2017. This is also important because we know that between BS III and BS IV technology, particulate emissions are reduced by some 80 per cent. Once this fuel is available, then retrofitting old vehicles or even scrapping commercial vehicles can be incentivised. Also, by April 2017, all two-wheelers will have to meet BS IV norms, which are significantly tighter.

But already we are learning that industry is not prepared to move all its buses and trucks to BS IV by April. Why? It says that it has huge inventories. This means, it will take another 6-8 months to make this move. The two-wheeler manufacturers, who were given one full year to make the transition, say that they are trying their best but again, have huge inventories to sell. So, deadlines to bring new cleaner vehicles must be shifted, they said. Unacceptable we must say.

I could go on with the list. But enough is enough. Today the only folks who are benefitting from dirty and toxic air is companies that make masks and air purifiers. It should dismay us that these are the companies that are sponsoring programmes on hazards of air pollution — this is not the future we want. This is what we must say loudly and every month — not just in winter. Then, action will happen. Clean air will happen.

So, leaving Delhi should not be the question. How to win this battle against pollution should be. Also, where will you go? The fact is, most of India is getting equally polluted. Air is equally foul, only it is not monitored. Other cities also have everything going for pollution cocktail. So, where will you run to? Stay. Fight. Win this battle of toxic smog.

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.

Sunita Narain

Sunita Narain is the director general, Centre for Science and Environment, and the editor, Down To Earth.

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