Kejriwal inaction turned Delhi into a gas chamber

Despite the growing pollution in Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party-led state government has come across as paralysed with no meetings being convened to strategise long term objectives to fight pollution

NH Photo by Vipin
NH Photo by Vipin

Ashlin Mathew

In a much delayed attempt to manage the severe air pollution in the capital city, the Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced that all schools would be closed for a week, construction activities would be banned from November 14-17 and all government employees would work from home, in addition to requesting private companies to shift to work from home.

These measures have come after the Supreme Court rapped Union and state governments while hearing a plea filed by 17-year-old Delhi student Aditya Dubey on the rising air pollution in Delhi on Saturday, November 13. A special bench comprising Chief Justice of India NV Ramana, Justice DY Chandrachud, and Justice Suryakant heard the petition. The SC had suggested that the Centre and Delhi could consider imposing a lockdown of two days, if needed.

On Saturday, November 13, the Air Quality Index recorded was 690, thus falling into the hazardous category. On Diwali, which was on November 4, 2021, the AQI in the city was 999. Last year around the same time period, the AQI recorded was 617, according to the Indian Meteorological Department. In 2019, around mid November, the AQI in the capital city was 570 and in 2018, the highest AQI for the month of November was 426.

However, the vice-president of Skymet Weather Mahesh Palawat, pointed out that no respite in pollution is expected over the next week due to unfavourable weather conditions, light flow of north-westerly winds and burning of stubble in the neighbouring states.

Despite the growing pollution in Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party-led state government has come across as paralysed with no meetings being convened to strategise long term objectives to fight pollution. An emergency meeting was called by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on Saturday after the apex court censured the government for continuously blaming farmers in neighbouring states for the rise in pollution in Delhi.

Criticising Arvind Kejriwal, former union minister and Congress leader Ajay Maken underscored that air pollution is a long term issue and needs to be handled as such. Just installing smog towers will not help. A lock down due to air pollution is a short term measure and the last resort, asserted Ajay Maken, and its impact will not be long-term.

“They have erred in their planning. The AAP government has been blaming farmers ever since the pollution issue became acute, but the farmers have been burning stubble for centuries. The issue now is the steep rise in the use of personal transport due to the poor public transport system in the capital. In addition to buses, the pace of the metro also needs to pick up. The Delhi government has failed to improve the transport in Delhi in the last six years,” explained Maken.

"At least 60% of the pollution in Delhi is from neighbouring states and the contribution of Delhi is the rest. Of the 40% pollution emitted by the state, half of it is from vehicles. The Delhi government could have monitored vehicular pollution, released advisories to control it from August or prior to that. Instead, they sent the advisory in November," said Vivek Chattopadhyay, senior programme manager, Clean Air Programme, CSE.

The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) which has been monitoring real-time pollution data generated by Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology explained that among the local sources, vehicles have contributed more than half of Delhi’s particulate pollution between October 24-November 8.

This is followed by household pollution that has ranged between 12.5-13.5%, industry (9.9-13.7%), construction (6.7-7.9%), waste burning and road dust (each varied between 4.6-4.9% and 3.6-4.1%, respectively).

"The traffic peaks also influence the hourly build-up of pollution during the day. While PM2.5 is influenced by several other factors, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is more closely related to traffic trends. During the study period, NO2 levels show a strong correlation with congestion. The levels increase when traffic speeds go down," read the CSE statement.

As part of the measures, the government could have begun spot checking of polluting heavy vehicles, strengthening of public transport, last mile connectivity, car pooling and car sharing.

There are 1.32 crore registered vehicles according to the VAHAN database. "Delhi needs to scale up integrated public transport systems, walking and cycling infrastructure, city-wide parking area management plans, and low emissions zones to restrain vehicle use and meet the electrification target of 25 per cent by 2024. Without these reforms, Delhi will not be able to enforce emergency measures to control vehicle numbers on road during smog episodes," warned CSE.

The organisation also called for eliminating dirty fuels from all industrial units while tightening emissions control measures, reduction of traffic volume, eliminate waste burning, and implementation of stringent dust control measures especially in the construction sector.

Chattopadhyay maintained that earlier too the apex court had suggested to the Delhi government that they could take pre-emptive action based on Comprehensive Action Plan (CAP) and the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP). "The decision to shut schools is a part of GRAP. The government needs provide data on what has been implemented in the city based on GRAP since 2017," added Chattopadhyay.

On an average, contribution of smoke to Delhi’s daily PM2.5 during middle of October to November 8, 2021, has been the lowest in the last four years. "So far, it has recorded on an average 12% per day in contrast to 17% per day in 2020, 14% per day in 2019, and 16% per day in 2018 (as reported by SAFAR)," noted CSE.

However, peak contribution of smoke to Delhi’s PM level was recorded on November 7, 2021, when it hit 48%. But this unusually high percentage didn’t spike Delhi’s PM2.5 levels as on that day, stated CSE.

The senior Congress leader pointed out that according to the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) for Delhi, it was recommended in 2017 that the public transport system, including buses and metro service, be improved. "Instead of improving public transport in the capital, Kejriwal continues to spend money on advertising," quipped Maken.

Currently, the Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM) is the overarching statutory body issuing directions to central and state pollution control boards of Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, UP and Rajasthan on issues pertaining to air pollution. It works alongside the Central Pollution Control Board.

National Herald called and sent messages to the CAQM chairperson and the spokesperson, but received no response. This article will be updated if and when they respond. On November 4, CAQM had stated that the air quality was likely to improve after November 6, as incidents of stubble burning were 54% less when compared to 2020.

"Paddy-residue burning events in Punjab, Haryana, NCR districts of UP and Rajasthan and Delhi have come down from 43,918 in 2020 to 21,364 in 2021 during the period from September 15 to November 2," it said in a statement.

The CAQM had replaced the Supreme Court-appointed 22-year-old monitoring body - the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) - in October 2020. The two-member EPCA was chaired by retired IAS officer Bhure Lal, and included environmentalist Sunita Narain, director general of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

The EPCA had drafted the CAP and GRAP, a set of emergency measures that would kick in when the air quality in the NCR deteriorated. However, the Delhi government had not even implemented most of their suggestions since 2017.

The plan had recommended introducing more buses on Delhi roads to improve public transport, usage of electric buses, appropriate usage of the cess collected to increase the number of buses in the capital and augmentation of bus depots to ensure space for all the new buses bought. All of the current recommendations including lockdown and banning of construction activity are a part of GRAP recommendations.

“If the Delhi government requires, for instance, 13,000 buses on the roads, you need to build multi-storeyed bus depots to park them. For that, you have to change the Delhi master plan. Congress had done it while it was implementing these measures. None of these multi-storey bus depots have been built in the last 6 years of this government,” maintained Maken, who was the transport minister in the Sheila Dixit government.

EPCA had reviewed the past budgets of the Delhi government to understand if the government lacked funds for bus procurement. It found that over the years, funds were allocated for the transport department, which included procurement of buses in the GNCTD budget. However, in May 2018, the committee wrote to the Supreme Court that the fleet augmentation did not take place and as a result the allocated and earmarked funds for bus procurement lapsed at the end of the budget year.

In July 2019, the EPCA had sought an urgent intervention from the Supreme Court for augmenting the public transport system in Delhi as its report had pointed out that “without an augmented public transport system, Delhi and other cities of India will not be able to combat toxic air pollution. It is also clear that currently our public transport infrastructure is grossly inadequate”. The report noted that Delhi has 17 buses per lakh people, while cities like Beijing in China had 107 buses per lakh people.

“Additionally, all of Delhi Transport Corporation’s 3,600 on-road buses were over 8 years of age and would need to be phased out within the next few years. This, when growth of private vehicles is a key contributor to air pollution in the city, is a matter of grave concern,” the report had observed.

As of November 2021, the Delhi Transport Corporation runs 3,760 buses, while there are 3,240 privately-owned cluster buses. There were zero privately-owned buses in 2010, but it has steadily climbed ever since the AAP government came to power. In June 2021, 1,000 low floor buses were to be procured by DTC for the first time since 2008, but it has been stalled due to corruption allegations.

In 2019, the Delhi government had implemented the much-reviled odd-even scheme in November, but AQI data for the said period showed that the programme did not improve Delhi’s air. The average AQI from November 4-15 2019, was 362. In 2018, the average AQI for the same period in absence of odd-even was 335.

Pointing towards the AAP government mismanagement, Maken said when the Congress was in power, it implemented the SC and EPCA suggestions. “The Supreme Court had suggested converting most vehicles and auto rickshaws in the city to CNG. The Congress government converted the entire fleet of taxis, buses and auto rickshaws to run on CNG. This is what planning to counter pollution means, not calling for a meeting on pollution in November,” said Maken, taking a dig at Kejriwal.

After Saturday’s emergency meeting with ministers and top officers at Delhi Secretariat, Arvind Kejriwal had announced that there would not be a complete lockdown and that the government would prepare a proposal about it.

As has become the norm, the Delhi government has blamed the union government for being unresponsive to the issue of pollution in the capital. The Delhi Minister for Environment, Forest & Wildlife Gopal Rai said he had written a letter to the Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav twice on the issue of stubble burning. "I don't know why the Centre is not responding as this is an emergency situation," said Rai.

At a press conference on Sunday, Rai said they would review the partial shutdown of schools and construction sites after November 17, 2021. He alleged that the government was doing everything in its power to reduce pollution, but he didn't give details of what the Delhi government had done. Rai blamed the burning of stubble in the neighbouring states as the main reason and the lack of winds for the persisting smog in the capital.

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Published: 14 Nov 2021, 8:55 AM