India's air pollution, a crisis beyond Delhi

By: Aishwarya Sudhir
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Failure to tackle key regional pollution sources continues to leave millions breathless. Delhi's Air Pollution Action Plan, GRAP, can never be fully implemented if the neighbouring states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh have no action plans of their own to curb pollution.

The NASA images from the 2nd week of November 2017, clearly indicates the persistent spread of smog across the Indo-Gangetic Plain.

India's air pollution, a crisis beyond Delhi

The Air Quality Index for cities across Northern India, including the Prime Minister's constituency, Varanasi continues to be severe.

India's failure to implement emission control standards for coal-fired power plants is leading to sever air pollution levels. Research produced by the University of Maryland and NASA on the 9th Nov 2017 states that 'Severe haze is a major public health concern in China and India. Both countries rely heavily on coal for energy, and sulfur dioxide (SO2) emitted from coal-fired power plants and industry is a major pollutant contributing to their air quality problems'.

Close to 40% of winter-time pollution has been attributed to crop fires and coal-fired power plants and industries spread across the region. Delhi has 13 coal-fired power plants in 300kms radius operating with no emission controls to regulate Sulfur dioxide and Nitrogen dioxide which contribute to a surge in particulate matter levels.

India's air pollution crisis is a regional problem similar to that of China, but India has no regional-level action plans in place to address the issue.

The Key regional pollution sources for winter-time smog in Delhi are coal-fired power plants and crop fires spread across the Northern Indian states.

Unlike Delhi, the Air Quality Index in most cities is being generated by 1 or 2 monitors only, making the reliability of the data beyond the capital highly questionable.

Delhi's air quality has been Hazardous for more than 7 days in a row, with Air Quality Index reading above 460, the Indian Medical Association has declared it a public health emergency and the medical fraternity from various quarters of the National Capital declared the city Unliveable.

Delhi's Graded Response Action Plan, has clearly failed to make any difference to the severe pollution levels being witnessed by the citizens of Delhi.

Since it's notification on the January 12th 2017, the action plan should have ensured that days, as per the response action plan, Delhi should have received the following alerts, however, it is important to note that each of the categories under the graded response action plan require cross boundary action with state governments across the region having their pollution control plans in place. This is NOT the case as of now.

In the last 11 months, Delhi should have received the following alerts:

CATEGORY OF ALERT /GRADE OF RESPONSE BASED ON AIR QUALITY LEVELS IN DELHI
MONTH ORGANGE(Poor Air Quality) RED ALERT(Very Poor to Severe Air quality) EMERGENCY ALERT(Hazardous Air Quality)
January 12th 2017 5 18 -
February 22 4  
March 18 - -
April 12 5 -
May 17 7 -
June 10 - -
July Safe Air Quality Monsoon -
August Safe Air Quality Monsoon -
September 3 - -
October 8 15 -
November   6 6
TOTAL ALERTS 95 55 6

ASSOCIATED ACTION UNDER GRAP FOR EACH OF THE ALERTS:

ORGANGE ALERT RED ALERT SEVERE ALERT EMERGENCY
1)Cap emissions from thermal power plants ,2)Sprinkling of water, 3)Fine visibilly polluting vehicles, 4)ensure smooth traffic movement, 5)implement supreme court's ban on fireworks and entry of trucks registered post 2005 1)Ban diesel gensets 2) Increase the parking fee 3)Increase the metro service and the fleet of buses 4)Ban open burning of firewood and coal for heating and cooking 4)Health advisory alert for vulnerable populations 1)Shutdown Bardarpur power plant 2)Cap emissions from power plants in NCR 3)Close brick klins, stone crushers and other polluting industries in NCR 1) Stop entry of trucks into Delhi 2)Alert the TASK FORCE for Shutting down of schools and halt all outdoor activities for children

The implementation of various actions listed under GRAP are based on the National Air Quality Index (AQI) generated by the Central Pollution Control Board. The recorded pollution levels are then classified as Moderate, Poor, Very Poor, and Severe.

The Government had enough time to implement GRAP and ensure inter-state coordination, however it is important to note that implementing GRAP and addressing pollution at the source are not mutually exclusive, if long-term solutions are not in place to address regional pollution sources, episodic action to mitigate the problem will not help as most agencies continue to pass the buck with no accountability to implement action plans across the region.

As per the Supreme Court's order in December 2016, the Central Pollution Control Board submitted the Graded Response Action Plan to curb and control the air pollution crisis choking the National Capital. The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has notified the action plan for implementation on the 12th of January 2017.

It has been close to 10 months since the action plan has been notified with a nodal agency, EPCA(Environment Pollution Control Authority) to implement it. However, the notification for reasons unknown has come into effect from October 18th 2017 only.

Quick facts:

  • The GRADED RESPONSE ACTION PLAN requires cross boundary coordination from various agencies across spread across the NCR states. However, the NCR states do not have any action plans of their own to mitigate pollution at their sources.
  • Unlike China, who also suffers from a severe air pollution crisis, India does not have regional actions plans in place with time-bound targets.
  • In china, the Beijing's air quality crisis is addressed at a regional level with five-year time-bound targets to reduce pollution from various high emission sources such as coal-fired power plants, steel industry and construction. For example, Beijing/Tianjin/Heibi [v]province has to ensure a 25% reduction in PM2.5 levels, which will in turn result in lesser pollution levels across the region.
  • Cities across the world grappling with air quality crisis, London, Paris have air quality action plans in place throughout the year to help avoid emergency situations
  • his winter, the air quality in Delhi began to sharply dip from moderate to poor category in the first week of October and continued to plunge into poor, very poor and severe categories before reaching the emergency situation.
  • The reports submitted by the Indian Institute of Technologies, Delhi and Kanpur had clearly cited the need to address, road dust, vehicular emissions, crop burning and emissions from coal plants in the NCR states.
  • India has more than 60% of its electricity generation from Coal-Fired Power plants and continues to operate without any pollution control standards for regulating SO2 and NO2 emissions.
  • Emission control regulations announced in 2016 requires all coal-fired power plants to be retrofitted to curb pollution levels and mandated that all power plants starting operation from 2017 January to comply with new emission standards, However, India continued to allow 16 new power plants to operate without having to adhere to the new norms[vi].
  • The Maryland university study conducted with the help of NASA concluded that 'Severe haze is a major public health concern in China and India. Both countries rely heavily on coal for energy, and sulfur dioxide (SO2) emitted from coal-fired power plants and industry is a major pollutant contributing to their air quality problems. Since 2007, emissions in China have declined by 75% while those in India have increased by 50%. With these changes, India is now surpassing China as the world's largest emitter of anthropogenic SO2'.
  • There is little or no evidence of a mitigation plan for addressing crop fires across the NCR states, the evidence is clearly attributing a 25% rise in the pollution levels to crop fires, yet, there's no mention of addressing these issues under the classified alert system given in GRAP

(Aishwarya Sudhir, researcher, air quality)

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