Tough action required to reduce harmful emissions

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Pollution, particularly the air-borne, is at the core of many health problems in India. It is also a major environmental issue the world is grappling with. The situation, across globe, has reached a point which calls for an urgent action before it’s too late. Ramesh Kumar Raja, Sr. Copy Editor, ‘Governance Today’ had a conversation with renowned environmentalist Dr Sunita Narain who shared her views on a wide range of issues related to environmental pollution. Narain, a Padma Shri awardee, is the director general of the Centre for Science and Environment, a premier think tank on environment-development issues. She is also the director of the Society for Environmental Communications and publisher of the fortnightly magazine, Down To Earth. Edited excerpts:

Sunita Narain
Dr Sunita Narain, Padma Shri awardee and director general of Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi

The air of major cities in the country is hardly breathable today. How do you look at the situation?

CSE’s assessment of air quality trends indicates that close to half the cities that are monitored are reeling under severe particulate pollution while newer pollutants like nitrogen oxides, ozone and air toxics are worsening the public health challenge. That means half of the urban population breathes air laced with particulate pollution that has exceeded the standards. Not just big cities, even smaller and more obscure cities are amongst the most polluted.

There is a shocking increase in air pollution related deaths in India; it is the fifth leading cause of death in India, with 620,000 premature deaths in 2010. This is up from 100,000 in 2000 – a six-fold increase. This is as per the Global Burden of Diseases study. Not only the deaths, but massive loss in healthy years — about 18 million healthy years of life due to illness – is a serious concern. Respiratory and cardiovascular diseases are key reasons for air pollution-induced premature deaths.

The situation requires tough action to reduce harmful emissions from vehicles, and other sources in urban areas, this will further require cleaning up the fuels so that India is able to set a targeted reduction in emissions.

Considering the fact that a very large number of people die because of airborne pollution, why have the governments been so irresponsive to the problem?

Government action to reduce air pollution is not at the same pace as the rising problem. That is the primary reason. The action plans to reduce the air pollution are still not made by most cities so there is no targeted reduction strategy being set. While there are national level policy measures – such as auto fuel policy – which will be tightening the emission norms, BS V and BS VI norms will not kick in before 2020 and 2024 respectively, as per the current proposal. This makes the task of achieving clean air even more difficult. The health effects and its impact on the economy is enormous that must be emphasised to take tough measures.

Your organization has been a driving force behind the ‘environment compensation charge’ by the Supreme Court on trucks entering Delhi. But will it serve the purpose, or it is only a temporary arrangement in your opinion? Delhi anyway has the highest numbers of cars and other vehicles plying on its roads.

It is based on ‘polluter pays’ principle. The pollution caused by trucks is enormous and the compensation charge is being implemented to act as a deterrent to use Delhi as a transit route while other alternative roads remain underutilised. While this is enforced to target the winter pollution but this actually means that government will have to introduce stringent emission reduction measures for on-road and old vehicles. And, since medium and heavy duty vehicle segment are one of major contributors to air pollution – this also calls for improvement of truck technologies so that their impact on air pollution can be reduced. Since the bypasses have been considerably delayed, the compensation charges became inevitable.

It is true that Delhi also has highest numbers of cars and two wheelers – but fiscal measures to reduce the numbers has remained an unfinished agenda. We also have been demanding increase in road tax and parking charges so we will keep pushing this.

Pollution reduction strategy from trucks and private vehicles cannot be compared as improving public transport and discouraging private transport will require a different mobility strategy.

Why have there been no check on rampant sale of automobiles in a city like Delhi as they are also major contributors of air pollution?

The public transport improvement has not kept pace with rising demand for mobility. Also, successive governments have not taken any measures so that private vehicle sales and usage can be reduced. Clearly this requires public support and engagement, but also taking a stand that government as a public policy will support public transport, not automobiles usage.

What about the pollution from factories and industries in and around big cities that already suffer from scarcity of green lung?

It is true that there are several sources of air pollution in the NCR. And there is no way that we can downplay any source of emissions in terms of stringency of action. That is the reason we have prepared an action plan to reduce air pollution from all sources. What has been proposed to the government is to set targeted reduction from each sector, making concerned departments accountable, and strict and regular monitoring of the measures. Somehow the NCR level air quality planning are not synchronised and efforts being made in Delhi are not replicated by neighbouring cities. This requires political understanding, and introducing strategies that takes air pollution as a regional problem rather than just a city’s problem.

Bursting of firecrackers and burning straws is another area of concern from health point of view. But governments are still not serious about the issue.

These are another source of emissions during the onset of winter. But strategies to reduce emissions from multiple sources require taking proactive action and being prepared to handle the situation when a source becomes a major cause. So the government needs to be equipped with emergency response action. In terms of regulations also, we need to recognise that firecrackers and burning straws are part of cultural practices or are associated with agricultural practices. Therefore, the strategies have to be customised to include command and control but at the same time working with community to win support for such measures.

How successful has been your organisation’s effort in compelling government to work for the betterment of ecology and environment?

We have had some successes over a period of time. The campaign on air pollution in the 90’s helped in converting the entire DTC bus fleet into CNG and in improving fuel quality. Similarly, on many other fronts we have succeeded in influencing policy and informing the public about the risks they face, for example, from presence of pesticides in soft drinks, or antibiotics in honey and chicken, or the grave danger of pollution itself, but clearly there are newer challenges that come up as we go along.