The urgent and immediate measures taken by cities like Mexico, Beijing, Paris can also be taken by New Delhi as they have found to be effective in varying degree. They include direct cash subsidies to users of CNG vehicles, for use of electric/ hybrid cars, to cyclists, monetary concessions for users of public transport, free parking for cars using CNG, ban on use of diesel cars and fuel-inefficient cars, reports Rajendra Shende for South Asia Monitor
By Rajendra Shende
The day Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which means literally Common Man's Party, won unprecedented mandate in Delhi's state assembly election in 2015, air pollution was sweeping the capital. The Air Quality Index (AQI) on that day was many times the standard level of the World Health Organisation (WHO) - extremely small size dust and carbon particles of 2.5 micron were rushing deep into Kejriwal’s and Delhi citizens’ lungs. The newly anointed Chief Minister was constantly coughing.
On the same day, city government fathers in Paris, another city that faces dangerous levels of air pollution, were huddled together to approve tighter and firmer measures against air pollution, given that it is as big a threat as terrorism that Paris faces often.
‘Coughing Kejriwal’, on the other hand, was promising on that day, free electricity and free water. He announced popular measures like financial audits for electricity distribution companies. He, surprisingly, forgot a dire need to fight air-pollution - strict audit the use of diesel generators, severe checks on fuel efficiency of all vehicles,close-check on the indiscriminate use of electricity produced by nearby coal-fired power plants, actions against inefficient air conditioners that triple the peak electricity loads, etc. He also fatally overlooked the need for sub-regional dialogue with neighbouring Haryana and Punjab to prevent open burning of post-harvest paddy fields in nearby states, use of firewood in inefficient 'chulhas' (cooking stoves) and open brick-kilns.
In November this year, the PM (particulate matter) 2.5 level was 900 times level standardised as safe by WHO. To be fair, Kejriwal is not the only politician that promises corruption-free measures rather than pollution-free measures that are needed on war footing. At the same time Delhi is not the only city that is faced with the crisis of air pollution. With every revolutionary commercialisation of fossil fuel burning machinery, air pollution has been making its monstrous appearance. 1911 and 1952 smogs in London killed thousands due to indiscriminate use of coal. New York and Los Angeles caused similar havocs at the time of rise of ‘car communities’. Mexico’s air pollution since the 1990s is the story of industrialization in the geographical bowl. Beijing air pollution is the combination of unprecedented fossil fuel growth and adverse weather patterns.
Air pollution is an epidemic for modern society that has made the choice of a fossil fuel-based development. Toxic chemicals riding on these particulate matter is a major new phenomenon; these chemicals enter our blood system and their catastrophic consequences are not even well understood. Millions of deaths estimated by WHO and Lancet reports are just the tip of the iceberg.
But,it does have solutions? The urgent and immediate measures taken by cities like Mexico, Beijing, Paris can also be taken by New Delhi as they have found to be effective in varying degree. They include direct cash subsidies to users of CNG vehicles, for use of electric/ hybrid cars, to cyclists, monetary concessions for users of public transport, free parking for cars using CNG, ban on use of diesel cars and fuel-inefficient cars.
In addition, state and central government should initiate procurement of agricultural residue, in line with the grain procurement, to ensure that they are not burnt. Free distribution and promotion of smokeless chulha and further promotion of LPG gas connections should be undertaken on a war footing. Free alternatives technologies for open brick kilns along with concessions for their construction should be provided to all kiln operators. Coal-using factories should be shifted within a year or so.
Apps like SAFAR and Skymet should be strengthened to disseminate weather patterns that would result into concentration and aggravating air pollution. Early warning signal be given through a special app in order to initiate odd-even and other public transport schemes and halting construction sites well ahead of crises.
Many of these schemes can be started overnight. Indians are now prepared for overnight change. If country wide demonetization can be done overnight, why not city-wide and region-wide decarbonisation? It would also inform the world that ‘Swachch Bharat’ campaign of Prime Minister Narendra Modi also includes cleaning the skies.
(The author, an IIT alumnus, is Chairman TERRE Policy Centre and a former Director UNEP. He can be contacted at email@example.com)