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Delhi Air Pollution: Lockdown Shows Air Quality Better Only If Emissions Cut At All Sources, Says Expert

Sarath Guttikunda, the founder-director of UrbanEmissions.Info, said cities need is to stop looking at band-aid solutions and start looking at long-term solutions.
India, Delhi, New Delhi, Parliament Building at sunset, pollution, smog
Westend61 via Getty Images
India, Delhi, New Delhi, Parliament Building at sunset, pollution, smog

As winter descends on Delhi, the air quality in the city has deteriorated again to hazardous levels. With Covid-19 adding one more layer of danger—experts have said that air pollution can increase the transmission and severity of the disease—both the Narendra Modi government and the Arvind Kejriwal administration have been suggesting different methods, including a possible law to curb air pollution.

Earlier this month, the AAP government in Delhi said that it was setting up a “war room” and launching an anti-stubble spray as measures to curb air pollution in the city. However, this too is unlikely to solve Delhi’s air pollution problem.

Sarath Guttikunda, the founder-director of UrbanEmissions.Info, called the Kejriwal government’s latest initiative a “band-aid solution” in the place of a long-term plan. UrbanEmissions.Info is a database of research, analysis and information related to air pollution.

In an email interview with HuffPost India, Guttikunda said, “Today, we need accountability, financial support, and institutional support to tackle air pollution from all the corners.”

He said India has the solutions, citing the ratification of emission standards for coal-fired power plants in 2015, but these aren’t implemented properly or “replicated en masse”.

Guttikunda also spoke about why the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) is toothless, a lesson to learn from the Covid-19 lockdown and whether individual behavioural changes can make a difference in the absence of government support.

Edited excerpts:

It has been a few years since GRAP has been in place, and yet Delhi’s air pollution problem is far from being solved. Can you explain to us why this isn’t working?

My question on this topic is — can we cut pollution by passing a law? GRAP says that waste burning is banned and generator sets are banned, then how is this being enforced? When in effect, GRAP says enhance public transport, then what? Currently, GRAP has no teeth to sink into the problem.

Can you explain to us why GRAP has no teeth?

As part of GRAP, the authorities (like EPCA and CPCB) broadcast options which can be broadly summarized as a wishlist for better air quality because of the conditions we observed in the last 48 hours. There is no clear enforcement and accountability mechanism in the writing, if those options are not followed up. Also, we should act on information for the next 48 hours and not on what happened in the last 48 hours.

(Ed: EPCA refers to Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority and CPCB to the Central Pollution Control Board)

Are there measures the government has taken that has actually worked?

One very old one is diesel-to-CNG conversion, which we use as a grand example of success. That was 20 years ago and not much has happened in the city since, except for new vehicle and fuel standards from time to time. Number of buses have remained the same. Landfill capacity has remained the same. Of late, LPG connections, nationwide, is a good story, which allowed to at least raise the awareness on dirty fuels like wood and coal for cooking.

The Arvind Kejriwal government has introduced the bio decomposer solution this year to curb stubble burning, do you think this will contribute to reducing air pollution at least in Delhi?

Very little information is available on this item, which also comes across as a band-aid solution, instead of a long-term plan.

State and central governments have also touted smog towers as part of the solution. Do you think this will work? If not, why?

I wrote multiple op-eds on this topic and one peer-reviewed article on why the idea of expecting vacuum cleaners to do the job of pollution control is ridiculous. If there is one lesson from the lockdown periods in March-April 2020, then that is the fact that the air quality will become better if and only if the emissions are cut at all the known sources, in the cities and outside the cities.

“Solutions exist in India as well, but not replicated en masse for complete success.”

Many polluted cities across the world have found effective solutions to their air pollution problem. Why do you think India is unable to do it?

Solutions exist in India as well, but not replicated en masse for complete success. For example: emission norms for coal-fired power plants were ratified in 2015, with little implementation to date. There are all the required notes on efficient travel modes like buses, walking, and cycling, but there is no push for supporting infrastructure. We end up with a lot of pilots and studies, with little in the way of success at the sectoral and city level, which sets the whole management process back. What cities need is to stop looking at band-aid solutions and start looking at long-term solutions.

Each year, lawmakers in the state and central government blame each other for bad air. How do you think this is hindering our progress to find a solution to the air pollution problem?

Blame-games are part of the discussion. Similar to GRAP, if the laws can solve our air quality problems, then we have all the right laws in place. Today, we need accountability, financial support, and institutional support to tackle air pollution from all the corners.

Can you explain to our readers the factors that contribute to air pollution in Delhi and all of northern parts of India?

In simple words, anything that burns will produce pollution. There is no such thing as green burning. As long as petrol, diesel, CNG, coal, wood, and waste are burning, we will have bad air quality. And looking only within a city’s boundary is not enough, the entire region needs to come together in this mission.

Are there methods adopted by other countries that India can look towards for controlling air pollution?

Both the US and EU have excellent examples of technology and management that we can learn from. But we cannot replicate them blindly since our mix of sources, our geographical setting, and our institutional and judicial setup are different. We can learn from the examples and mend them to suit us.

How can we as citizens help to bring down air pollution?

For a start, it is not right to put the onus on the individuals to clean the air, without providing options to support the behavioral change. This support can be in the form of more buses, infrastructure to walk and cycle, better waste management, and more greening. Having said that, where possible, individuals can take some responsibility, in the form of walking and cycling when possible, turn off engines when idling for more than 20 seconds, maintain your vehicles like tire pressure, say no to plastics, compost as much wet waste as possible, and conserve power by powering down or using efficient equipment.

What do you think the state and central governments need to do to solve the air pollution problem?

For a start, acknowledge that the problem exists and that there is a direct link to our health. Next, whereever possible, scale up interventions in all the sectors.

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This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost India, which closed in 2020. Some features are no longer enabled. If you have questions or concerns about this article, please contact indiasupport@huffpost.com.