Let's face it, emergency measures are emergency measures. These are meant to contain the immediate damage. Arvind Kejriwal has been criticised for waking up to the air pollution problem in Delhi too late but the truth is it would have hardly made a difference had he announced such measures five days ago. What Delhi needs for its air pollution problem is a solution that is comprehensive and designed for the long term. For toxic air in the national capital is not merely an early winter phenomenon; air quality here remains uniformly poor all through the year, with minor fluctuation in the suspended particulate matter count locality-wise.
What Kejriwal actually stands guilty of is failing to anticipate the problem and taking his attention off it after the second round of the odd-even experiment. The attitude was similar when vector-borne diseases hit the city a few months ago. By now these are calendar occurrences. If the state government does not stay prepared then it is irresponsible.
Coming back to emergency measures, students cannot be kept off schools and people cannot be kept indoor for long; the power plant at Badarpur or metro construction work cannot stay closed for long; and diesel generators sets cannot be kept inoperational beyond a point. These are at best temporary measures, with limited impact. Identified as major culprits now, construction work, the generators and the power plant will be back to polluting the air again. Thus the government’s action means little practically and it’s hardly a solution to pollution that remains more than five times the safe level even during other parts of the year.
Delhi government, obviously, needs to much more but despite its best intent it might not achieve much. The fight against air pollution has to be a long one and it must involve other states adjoining Delhi. For example, burning of post-harvest stalk and controlling polluting vehicles require joint action from governments of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Punjab. Curiously, despite repeated warnings from experts on the alarming level of air toxicity year after nothing much has been done.
According to a report in The Times of India, in late 2015 the Centre had issued a 42-point plan of action to all these states. It included short, medium and long term actions to tackle the air pollution problem. Only Delhi has implemented a few of them; the rest have ignored any action for various reasons, including political. It called for better coordination among states for implementation of the action plan because it’s a common problem. No coordination is visible yet.
Burning of crop stubble is a huge contributor to air pollution not only in Delhi but also in the neighbouring states. But governments would be reluctant to take punitive action against farmers because it might a political colour. The farmers on their part claim burning the stubble is cost efficient for them because engaging hands to remove the stalk is an expensive affair. This calls for involvement of technology or creative use of programmes such as MNREGA. Any initiative in this regard is invisible.
The alarming situation also calls for a national policy and a national agency with powers – policing power to be more specific - to execute it. We have neither. It reflects the general lack of a sense of urgency. Since the matter is on the concurrent list, the Centre should take the initiative and get the ball rolling. This is a matter that involves public health so it need not get embroiled in petty politics.
On its part, the AAP government cannot relax. It has to make public transport much more efficient to curb use of vehicles by citizens. Odd-even formula will work only when people have no problem commuting. Punitive action on waste-burning and watering of roads to control dust from flying about have to be round the year activities, not temporary ones.
Stop-gap arrangements are of no help. Air pollution calls for serious intervention. Everyone must take note.