The Delhi government’s 15-day odd-even initiative to contain vehicular emissions has made little or no difference to air quality in the capital, The Hindu reported last week.

The report claims that peak pollution levels during the first week of the scheme – which moved cars with odd licence plates off the streets on alternate days – are “either comparable or just slightly lower” than the high levels observed from the beginning of December.

This is not surprising. The odd-even rule wasn’t a bad idea. But the pollutants floating around in Delhi’s poisonous air are not generated by the city alone. The capital is surrounded by industrial clusters in Faridabad, Ghaziabad and elsewhere, as well as brick kilns.

To bake bricks, the kilns burn agricultural waste, coal and used tyres. In a 2012 paper published in the Economic and Political Weekly, researcher Sarath Guttikunda pegged the number of kilns around Delhi at around 1,000.

Another source of pollution is thermal power projects that burn coal to generate electricity. Some are located in Delhi, others in nearby Punjab and Haryana. However, studies show that emissions from thermal plants as far away as Chhattisgarh are also reaching Delhi. (See figure 7 in this report).

Monthly average PM10 concentrations due to emissions from coal-fired thermal power plants in India. Source: Greenpeace India
Monthly average PM10 concentrations due to emissions from coal-fired thermal power plants in India. Source: Greenpeace India
Monthly average PM10 concentrations due to emissions from coal-fired thermal power plants in India. Source: Greenpeace India
Monthly average PM10 concentrations due to emissions from coal-fired thermal power plants in India. Source: Greenpeace India
Monthly average PM10 concentrations due to emissions from coal-fired thermal power plants in India. Source: Greenpeace India
Monthly average PM10 concentrations due to emissions from coal-fired thermal power plants in India. Source: Greenpeace India
Monthly average PM10 concentrations due to emissions from coal-fired thermal power plants in India. Source: Greenpeace India
Monthly average PM10 concentrations due to emissions from coal-fired thermal power plants in India. Source: Greenpeace India

System requirements

In other words, Delhi cannot solve its air pollution problem on its own. A countrywide effort is the needed for this purpose.

Pollutants come from all over – from Punjab, for instance, when farmers burn their fields after the kharif harvest, or from Chhattisgarh, when the monsoons blow smokestack emissions to the north. In addition, the pollution problem is not limited to the capital as large parts of India are suffering from poor air quality.

While making this point in a recent working paper published by the Centre for Policy Research, environmental lawyer Shibani Ghosh talks about the need to strengthen India’s regulatory regime for air quality.

In the paper, "Reforming The Liability Regime For Air Pollution In India", Ghosh observes that the current regime is built around the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.

The legislation mandates that all organisation setting up a polluting unit must get clearances from the government (state of Centre, depending on the size of the project). It prohibits these units from emitting above the standards laid down by the pollution control boards. The boards are empowered to issue orders to polluters, while courts can imprison and/or fine violators.

But this system has not worked. For one, the country’s Pollution Control Boards are moribund organisations. Understaffed and underfunded, they lack the ability to police and crack down on polluters. Even when a matter reaches the courts, according to Ghosh, litigation can take very long.

To reduce air pollution, it is this environmental governance architecture that India needs to fix. Until then, all governments – like the one in Delhi – can do their best to control emissions. Every effort helps, but a larger set of responses is needed for a more durable solution to India's polluted air.