Delhi air pollution: Reintroducing odd-even an act of last minute governance as Centre and states play blame game

You don't have to be a sophomore in the still gardens of Shantiniketan to know that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. In New Delhi, fifty shades greyer than Shantiniketan currently, history is repeating itself a third time. The Delhi government has reintroduced its odd-even scheme, that will sync number plates on private vehicles with the date, and paint the destiny of each traffic day either odd or even.

In the first 15 days of 2016, the odd-even wave came as a relief when introduced for the first time. Results of ambient air monitoring data collected by Delhi Pollution Control Committee's mobile units across south and central Delhi on 2 January, 2016, showed a reduction in air pollution in both PM2.5 and PM10 categories.

This was also the first time that ambient air quality was being recorded seriously by mobile dust samplers using the light scattering technique from 15 locations, including Vasant Vihar, Delhi fire station Bhikaji Cama Place, Palika Kendra, Defence Colony, Manglapuri, Ghitorni, etc.

Odd-even was introduced twice before, in January and April of 2016. PTI

Odd-even was introduced twice before, in January and April of 2016. PTI

In the first phase, PM2.5 and PM10 levels in six locations in east and north east Delhi bordering Uttar Pradesh were recorded on the higher side in comparison to south and central Delhi.

But in the second phase, the same scheme seemed more like an unneeded intervention. As per data generated and shared by IndiaSpend, "The average PM2.5 concentration in Delhi's air was 68.98 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m³) during the odd-even period from 15 April to 29 April, indicating "moderate" conditions, which increased from 56.17µg/m³, indicating "average" air quality between 1 April and 14 April."

The scheme is now returning for a third time, and it will be rolled out from 13 November to 17 November. On 8 November, the US Embassy air monitor measured a deadly high of PM2.5 levels at 726, which is 70 times over the WHO norms. But the smog came, sinned and is now tiptoeing its way out the backdoor. PM2.5 levels as of 11 November had come down to 316 near the US Embassy (still hazardous, but not as deadly). By the time the scheme hits the road running, levels would have reduced further.

On 8 November, Delhi health minister Satyendra Jain told Firstpost that pollution caused on the roads is a mere fraction of the smog and hence, bringing in the odd-even scheme at this hour might not be remedial. "If PM2.5 is 600, then traffic contributes to only 100, not more than 15 to 20 percent of the total. So, you can't do anything about the other 80 percent. Even if you halve that figure, it won't have any impact," the minister had said, adding that odd-even can only contribute to lowering pollution levels once external factors like stubble burning have been addressed.

Yet, the step has been taken and nearly a week late.

Is it then an act of last-minute governance because preemptive measures weren't taken by either Delhi or the Punjab and Haryana governments? It's hard to ignore the fact that the same poisonous smog had choked the capital last year as well, with PM2.5 levels hitting a ridiculous 999. Last year, the discourse was firecrackers being burst by locals versus stubble burning by farmers in Congress ruled-Punjab and BJP-led Haryana.

In his chat with Firstpost, Jain stressed on the point that an entire 800-km stretch in North India was covered under a smog cloud and blamed the governments of Punjab and Haryana for not offering compensation to the farmers who were left with no option but to burn stubble. This year, with a ban on licences on sale, wholesale and retail on crackers within Delhi-NCR days before Diwali, the prime suspects are now those farmers from neighboring states.

Jain told Firstpost that letters were sent to other governments, and that they didn't do anything except impose penalties on farmers engaging in stubble burning — over 1,400 penalties were imposed on farmers in Haryana last year.

If these laxities of the Haryana and Punjab governments were known to the Delhi government, then why wasn't the capital ready for this? Couldn't the setting up of the 20 air-monitoring stations (inaugurated by Kejriwal on 9 November) be done at least a couple of months before Diwali?

The network of 158 Mohalla clinics (established by the Aam Aadmi Party) or 38 government hospitals could have supplied medical masks and spread awareness about Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) in outdoor air from days before? As per the World Health Organisation (WHO), "Human exposure to EDCs occurs via ingestion of food, dust and water, via inhalation of gases and particles in the air, and through the skin. EDCs can also be transferred from the pregnant woman to the developing fetus or child through the placenta and breast milk. Pregnant mothers and children are the most vulnerable populations to be affected by developmental exposures, and the effect of exposures to EDCs may not become evident until later in life."

Farmers who are being held responsible for what Delhi is suffering have 15 days to thresh and market the next crop, which is wheat. In the age of machine harvesting, stubble is left behind and isn't eaten by animals. Burning this is the cheapest and fastest option.

Just last month, the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences released a report titled 'Innovative Viable Solution to Rice Residue Burning in Rice-Wheat Cropping System Through Concurrent Use of Super Straw Management System-fitted Combines and Turbo Happy Seeder'. The report said, "It is estimated that in NW states of India, about 23 million tonnes of rice residues are burnt annually. Collection and storage of such a huge quantity of residue is neither practically feasible nor economical."

The report further added that "estimates indicate that up to 80 percent of rice residues are burnt by farmers in Punjab. In other NW states also, rice burning is practiced in a sizeable area".

The report admits that major pollutants emitted by crop residue burning — CO2 , CO, CH4 , N2 O, NOx, SO2, black carbon, non-methyl hydrocarbons (NMHC), volatile organic compounds (VOC) and particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM 10) — that contribute heavily to global warming. As per the report, the concurrent use of super straw management system (SMS)-fitted combines and Turbo Happy Seeder in rice-wheat cropping systems will help in reducing in rice residue and stubble burning, which the ban imposed by state has quite visibly failed to curb.

The capital expenditure involved is estimated to be Rs 470 crore. While it seems like a more sustainable alternative, farmers might still resort to the more economical option of burning. As per the Economic Survey of 2016, the average income of a farming household of five people across 17 states of India is Rs 20,000 a year.

Far away from farmers and their woes is Twitter, where statements are being made. Amrinder Singh, Chief Minister of Punjab, in his recent tweets, had said that the "situation is serious but Punjab is helpless, as the problem is widespread and the state has no money to compensate farmers for stubble management". In yet another tweet, he passed the buck and said "the Centre alone can solve the problem given its national implications".

At the Centre, Harsh Vardhan, Union environment minister, had tweeted that the "Graded Response Action Plan notified by the ministry shall have to be implemented strictly by all concerned".

This plan was prepared for implementation under different Air Quality Index (AQI) categories. It has a list of measures ranging from imposing the odd-even scheme to closing brick kilns to shutting down power plants to increasing parking fees to sprinkling unpaved roads. It is, in short, a list of reactionary measures to pollution levels once they have increased beyond measure. Where are the preemptive recommendations?

Had the governments of Delhi, Haryana and Punjab, or the Centre evened these odds before hand, Delhi wouldn't have had to come closer to its own death this way.

Updated Date: Nov 10, 2017 17:34 PM

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