They say when the English have nothing to say they talk of the weather. We wonder, however, it would be just a small talk should UK Prime Minister Theresa May, whose three-day visit to India concludes on Wednesday, happen to mention New Delhi’s smoke situation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Smog City, as the National Capital is now jokingly referred to by Delhiites has much in common with May's London. It was hit with similar smog in 1952. Though one may refute the similarities between the Smog situation in New Delhi with the Great Smog that hit London over five days between 5 December 1952 to 9 December 1952, that killed thousands because of health issues that emerged out of it, those who have been to New Delhi may argue that it couldn't get any worse.
Even then it would be wiser that Ne w Delhi takes a few lessons from London's Great Smog on how to prevent it from happening again in New Delhi.
A valuable approach in that direction may be the Clean Air Act 1956 that the Ministry of Health in the UK put to effect to prevent a 1952-like situation in the future. Here’s what New Delhi may learn:
• Though the same exact rules may not be practical for New Delhi, especially since the cause of the problem is different, an act that aptly identifies the source of pollutants and offers measures to reduce them could be a right place to start with to prevent the situation from arising in the future.
• A key element of Clean Air Act was setting up stringent rules on industries as another source of pollution in and around London to ensure their presence doesn't add to the smoke situation. For New Delhi, it would be fruitful to identify sources that contribute to a large amount of pollution.
• Apart from identifying the source, the act also offered solutions that could be implemented in London, such as setting up a technical guideline on height of chimneys, standardising acceptable level of grit and dust emitted from chimneys and measuring it, fuel to be consumed, etc, gave the public some direction on what was allowed and what wasn't. The New Delhi government could collaborate with environmental and pollution experts to identify measures that can be taken to curb the release of pollutants into the air.
• One of the main issues that have emerged as the chief reason behind the sudden smoke situation in New Delhi (and historically too) is that bulk of New Delhi's pollution emerges outside the capital. This year too, it was the burning of crops in states surrounding New Delhi. Perhaps, the New Delhi government could work on an arrangement with the neighbouring states to dispose of the agricultural waste in an eco-friendly way either by helping the surrounding states with technical know-how or funds to promote green methods in waste disposal.
As a New York Times story stated on 2 November, "Farmers 100 miles north in Punjab were well aware that they were contaminating the capital’s air... and were willing to consider other ways to dispose of the excess straw, but could not afford the options offered by the government."
• But even then the crop burning in states surrounding New Delhi was responsible only for the one-quarter of the pollution, a majority of it is likely to have emerged from inside New Delhi including festivals like Diwali and Dussehra, which also contributed to the recent smog situation in New Delhi. In fact, according to an NDTV report, "data from the central pollution monitoring agency showed that concentrations of Particulate Matter or PM 10 (coarser pollutants) was over 1,600 micrograms per cubic metre compared to a safe level of 100 at around 2 am in Delhi's Anand Vihar, on the night of Diwali. Whereas, PM 2.5, a standard measure of air quality, was as much as 14 times the safe limit." This is despite the fact several citizens claimed that the bursting of crackers wasn't as high as last year.
Not everyone like firecrackers and a lot of Delhiites would be willing to give up firecrackers to breathe clean air. The Delhi government could implement a fee on those who want to light firecrackers to discourage bursting firecrackers.
• The Clean Air Act 1956 also clarified as to who will be held responsible if any of the rules, say, if building chimneys produced dark smoke, but with valid defences to prevent misuse of the law against citizens. And that’s why intent became an important part in the decision-making of whether or not an offence was committed. Taking this as an example, perhaps the state government could come up with rules that while limiting the amount of smoke created both inside New Delhi and in the surrounding areas, it also offers adequate defences to prevent its misuse.
• The Clean Air Act also sets fines that can be imposed on people who break the rules be it individual offenders or states and their regional bodies surrounding New Delhi. But that would depend a lot on how strongly will New Delhi be able to stress its right for clean air, and not get trapped in party politics.