Public health emergencies of the previous century, such as cholera, malaria and TB have all been tackled with antibiotics and vaccines. But what about the biggest public health emergency of contemporary times? That’s the pollution in the air we breathe which has reached unprecedented life-threatening levels — recall Delhi’s situation post-Diwali — yet we are not prepared to deal with it. It may worsen with the advancing winter.
However, things may change with the notification that the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) is soon going to issue to Delhi-NCR, and subsequently to other states, on implementation of Graded Response Action Plan. That is a system based on the Air Quality Index (AQI), designed to take effective steps to combat public health emergencies due to pollution.
To decode the plan and understand its efficacy, Debobrat Ghose of Firstpost speaks to Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director (Research and Advocacy) and head, air pollution and clean transportation programme at Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), one of the stakeholders in the planning process.
Firstpost: What’s the Graded Response Action Plan all about?
Answer: Last week, the Supreme Court directed the MoEF to notify the graded response action plan for Delhi-NCR and once it’s notified, the government has to implement it at the earliest. The plan prepared jointly by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), CSE and others, charts a detailed strategy on what kind of action is needed for a certain level of pollution defined by the AQI. There are various categories of pollution — moderate, poor, very poor, severe and above that, the emergency level. The actions listed in the poor category need to be implemented throughout the year. But during months when weather conditions turn more adverse, there is need for greater scrutiny of enforcement. It’s the first-of-its-kind measure to be implemented in India. This will slow down the peaking up of the pollution level.
It’ll also catalyse long-term action because the kind of measures they have listed as per the levels of pollution would help us to get better results. Besides, it’ll also help us put in place more systemic solutions urgently needed to give benefits of sustained quality air throughout the year.
FP: What kind of actions has been recommended in the plan vis-à-vis the levels of pollution?
A: Based on AQI that shows air pollution levels — from moderate to severe — various measures have been recommended like shutting down of brick kilns and coal-based power plants; maximizing generation of power from existing natural gas based plants; mechanized cleaning of roads and sprinkling of water; stopping the use of diesel and kerosene generator sets; stopping construction activities, and entry of truck traffic into Delhi (except essential goods); removing polluting vehicles from the road; putting an end to burning of wastes and garbage, etc.
FP: Immediately after Diwali, Delhi witnessed an emergency like situation due to high-level of air pollution. But, again with the advent of winter, the air quality has begun to deteriorate.
A: During winter due to calm and cool weather condition, air gets trapped close to ground level and along with it pollution already present in the city also gets trapped. This winter too, we are witnessing this situation of rapid building up of pollution. We are going to see several episodes of smog and this condition will prevail till mid-February. This happens due to this severe anti-cyclone situation. There will be ups and downs, with the pollution level hitting the severe level continuously.
FP: What steps need to be taken to prevent this onslaught of pollution?
A: We should have the winter plan in place where emergency measures should be implemented with absolute stringency. The implementation of graded response action plan will ensure that if weather condition is adverse, pollution in air doesn’t get worse. The measures mentioned in each category need to be strictly followed.
FP: What factors aggravate the pollution level in Delhi-NCR?
A: Vehicular pollution, burning of waste and garbage, construction debris, emissions from coal-based power plants, dust, burning of crop stubble, etc are the major culprits. However, stubble burning is a temporary phenomenon, because it takes place during October and November, before the new crop.
FP: Where have we faulted and what needs to be done?
A: In the area of public transport system, we’ve really slipped a lot, because except Metro rail, no investment has been made in this sector. Now, the priority should be to have an integrated public transport system, where Metro system and highly improved bus system are integrated physically and through a common ticketing system. Simultaneously, a well organized para-transit system needs to be in place, supported by a good walking and cycling infrastructure. Odd-even scheme is an emergency measure and can’t be a permanent solution.
Besides Delhi-NCR, other states too have to follow the same template of the action plan with absolute stringency, because things aren’t happening in a systematic manner. When a plan gets delayed, we lose momentum. We have to be extremely careful – even post-winter — to keep momentum going by adopting all measures—short term, medium term and long term.
FP: Delhi children are being deprived of a carefree childhood due to this pollution…
A:Very true! There is one death per hour due to air pollution; lungs of every third child are impaired. They are being recommended indoor activity and are discouraged from outdoor activities when pollution is severe.
FP: Delhi’s pollution can’t be seen in isolation. To contain it, active cooperation from states and central agencies is needed. Is there any common authority to deal with inter-state issues and enforcement related to pollution control?
A: No, there is not. Rather it’s not required as MoEF and CPCB are already there as central agencies to supervise the whole process and then the state governments should implement measures. The CPCB has to take the lead as the most legitimate body.
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Updated Date: Dec 18, 2016 11:12:43 IST