Private vehicles will have to be restricted if Delhi NCR air quality reaches emergency levels, warns EPCA chief Dr Bhure Lal

The morning after Diwali, pollution levels have crossed the hazardous level with PM 2 and PM 4 being forty times above the normal level. If that is not bad enough, doctors at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in New Delhi did a simulation with a pair of clean lungs, which were hung outside the hospital. Within 24 hours, the lungs had become black because of pollution.

Dr Bhure Lal, chairman of the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) for the National Capital Region (NCR) of Delhi, has been entrusted with the challenging responsibility of reducing pollution levels. He has been on this task for many years. One of his key initiatives has been the spearheading a campaign for the switch-over of public vehicles to CNG from diesel to provide green fuel. But that was in 2002.

He is trying to implement a multi-layered system to tackle this problem. His hands remain tied as neither  he  enjoyed the support of the state governments of Punjab and Haryana nor of the people in the NCR who continued to burst crackers even after the stipulated of 10 pm by the Supreme Court.

Rashtrapati Bhawan is partly visible due to smog as traffic plies on Rajapth in New Delhi Thursday. AP

Rashtrapati Bhawan is partly visible due to smog as traffic plies on Rajapth in New Delhi Thursday. AP

Excerpts from the interview:

The air quality in the NCR, which has a population of about 30 million people, is in the red zone. Why has this become an annual feature?

There is no doubt that the situation is grave. Last year, at this time, air quality levels had reached severe and emergency levels for quite a few days. This year, air quality levels in the Delhi NCR have reached severe.

If it reaches emergency levels, we will have to restrict the use of private vehicles. What is wrong with it? This is what the Graded Response Action (Plan GRAP) warrants. GRAP is being implemented in Delhi, Haryana, and parts of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

But we have already implemented a number of measures in the national capital and the NCR region. These measures include the shutting down of the Mundka industrial area, we have banned all construction and digging activities, shutting down of industries that run on coal and biomass.

Fuel helps in the degeneration of air quality so we have stopped use of biomass as fuel as also pet coke, furnace oil and rubber oil. We have also put a ban on diesel generators. The Badarpur power plant was shut down on 15 October when GRAP came into force.

The EPCA has also warned that we could introduce odd and even and road rationing in the coming days after consulting with the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). These measures are pre-emptive and go beyond what is stipulated in GRAP. But these could be introduced keeping in mind the forecast and the need for emergency actions to combat pollution.

You have had 52 teams going around in the NCR to ensure there are no violations. But the fact is that we are still being forced to breathe bad air ?

We have set up 52 teams comprising officials from the central and state pollution control bodies besides civic authorities on last Thursday to cover Delhi, Gurugram, Noida, Ghaziabad and Faridabad. Four of these teams were deployed in Delhi, while two each have been deployed in these four satellite towns. For the first time, EPCA members have been asked to visit at least one hot spot such as Punjabi Bagh, DTU, Mundka and the landfill sites of Ghazipur and Bhalswa to submit reports on what is triggering pollution and to suggest solutions.

I myself visited Anand Vihar, which is one of the worst polluted areas of Delhi. I plan to monitor the situation there personally. These local sources of pollution are responsible for 36 percent of the pollution in the city.

These interventions are good but not enough effort has been directed to stop farmers from burning paddy stubble in Punjab and Haryana?

Why are you directing this question to me? You should direct this question to the state governments of Haryana and Punjab. The EPCA has been directed to monitor pollution levels in the NCR and that is where our jurisdiction extends to. This year, the government of India directed Rs 100 crore to be dispersed. The burning of paddy stubble has increased because harvesting of wheat and paddy has become mechanised by using a combined harvester, which leaves behind a stubble of straw.

The government is now insistent that a super straw management system be attached to every self-propelled combined harvester. This super straw management system helps replant the leftover straw into the soil which has the additional benefit of improving soil’s quantity. It costs Rs 1.25 lakh and is being given on a community basis at 80 percent subsidy while it is being given to individual farmers at a 50 percent subsidy.

Quite a large number of farmers have applied for these subsidies.It has become compulsory for those who use combined harvesters to purchase these straw management systems.

You also have the huge problem of open fires at the Narela and Bawana dumps?

This burning is taking place where garbage is being dumped. People, who live in these places need to co-operate. Rag pickers often set afire this waste. We have come up with very stringent laws by imposing fines of up to Rs 5 lakhs on those who are not following the law. We have imposed fines of Rs 10 lakh on two private companies responsible for picking up waste in Narela and Bawana dumps and Rs 5 lakh on the Delhi State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation (DSIIDC).

We in Delhi are blaming crop burning for pollution but people are spreading more poison in the air. We had received falsified reports that no burning is taking place in this area but when we checked, mounds of plastic and rubber were being burnt openly and we had to call the fire brigade to douse the flames. If we see even a single pile of waste or any instances of burning, we will levy fine on the industries and the penalties will be doubled.

All this waste is taken to the Ramky plant, where it is converted to electricity.

And despite all these efforts, why does the air quality remain severe? India also enjoys the notoriety of having sixteen of the most polluted cities in the world.

The reasons for this are manifold. One crore vehicles ply in Delhi with 45 lakh vehicles coming in from our neighbouring states. Look at the kind of pollution these vehicles bring. Of course, the eastern and western peripheral roads have been constructed whereby lakhs of trucks will be bypassing Delhi.

During the 1970s, Delhi had eight lakh vehicles. A decade later, the number increased to 28 lakhs and presently it has over one crore vehicles. Obviously this enormous increase in vehicular traffic is going to aggravate pollution levels.

Of course the problem gets worse during winter when PM 2.5 and PM 10 get suspended in the air and with the cool air stagnating over the city, pollution levels are kept close to the ground where people breathe. Wind velocity is at almost zero. These winds are coming from Punjab.

A comprehensive action plan (CAP) is being prepared by the Ministry of Environment and Forests to tackle pollution problem across India. The MoEF will administer this plan. The CAP has been notified but it is imperative that we should step up implementation of the long-term actions that have been listed in the plan. These will include a thrust towards intercity public transport and the augmentation of intra-city transport.

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Updated Date: Nov 08, 2018 13:12:48 IST

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