Little focus on polluted cities

Thirteen of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in India including Patna, Amritsar and Raipur.

Delhi’s air pollution crisis has triggered unprecedented media attention and a judicial as well as administrative response. Very few environmental issues in recent times have led to response that is so prompt.

The Delhi Government introduced the ‘odd-even’ scheme for use of private vehicles for a trial period and has received an overall positive response, the National Green Tribunal directed action against diesel vehicles and the Supreme Court followed by prohibiting the registration of SUVs and other categories of diesel cars.

Air Pollution has suddenly become an issue on which all the three courts situated in Delhi, the Supreme Court, the National Green Tribunal and the High Court, want to do something. The moot question one needs to ask now is: is all this really going to change things on the ground (or air)? Will it lead to cleaner air in Delhi? Is the ‘Delhi model’ capable of being replicated in other polluted areas in India?

In order to address this issue, one has to revisit previous administrative and judicial action on air pollution. One of the landmark judicial actions on air pollution in India was the Supreme Court’s direction in 1996 to reduce air pollution around the Taj Mahal.

The court directed for a shift to cleaner fuel for all industrial units located in the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ): a zone comprising of Agra, Firozabad, Mathura and Bharatpur districts. Industrial units running on highly polluting coal had to swiftly move to natural gas. Subsidised gas was provided to encourage the shift to natural gas.

The intention was good, the implementation was quite satisfactory and a special authority, the Taj Trapezium Zone Authority, was set up to ensure effective implementation of Court directions.

However, the impact of these regulatory measures have not been too positive. Rather than a reduction in the level of pollution, the air pollution levels have increased. Firozabad, located within the TTZ, is on the list of the 20 most polluted cities in the world ranking 11 in the list.

Rather than a decrease, there has been an absolute increase in the level of pollution. The level of PM 2.5, PM 10, NOX are way above the permissible levels. The reason: the shift to subsidised gas encouraged greater industrialisation in the TTZ, massive capacity additions and expansion of existing units took place.

The new and enhanced capacity led to an increase in vehicular traffic, habitation, shops/commercial establishments and other related activities which contributed cumulatively to increased pollution.

Though one cannot dismiss the wisdom of shifting from coal to natural gas, the judicial action missed some critical aspects: natural gas is cleaner than coal but is still polluting, subsidies can only encourage consumers to use more fuel and therefore lead to concentration and expansion of industries and related infrastructure.

Weighing our options

The Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) in Delhi is no different. The shift to CNG for public transport and taxis in Delhi led to cleaner air for a brief period. But the massive increase in private vehicles (about 1,400 new vehicles are added every day in Delhi) has off-set the benefits of shifting public transport to CNG. The restriction on diesel vehicles by the courts is likely to lead to the same result.

A massive increase in petrol vehicles will obliterate to a large extent the benefits of prohibiting diesel vehicles. Yet, without analysing the impact of previous initiatives, we continue to follow largely the same scheme.

At another level, air pollution raises serious issues of equity and environmental justice. The entire public discussion around air pollution is focussed on Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR).

True, Delhi is top on the list of the most polluted city in the world. But then, 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in India. How many people know that the other cities in the list includes Patna, Amritsar, Raipur, Allahabad etc?

When concerns are raised about crop/stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana, the main focus is on how the smoke impacts adversely the air quality of Delhi. Not a mention is made as to how this pollution impacts people in Punjab and Haryana. There are now plans to close down the two coal-fired power plants in Delhi.

Not a thought is being given to the fact that the voiceless population of may be Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh or Chhattisgarh will be forced to inhale toxic fumes from power plants to meet the extra demand in Delhi arising out of the closure of the power plant in Delhi.

Unfortunately, the heightened focus on air pollution in Delhi does not signify enhanced environmental consciousness: it is environmentalism of the politically powerful and the elite and a transfer of pollution from the nation’s capital to the rest of the country. It is time that the judicial and administrative action on air pollution need to recognise that all citizens of India, irrespective of where they reside, and strata they belong to have the right to clean air as a Fundamental Right.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based environmental lawyer)

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