The Big Story: Pointing fingers

Delhi’s pollution levels have been in the “severe category” since Monday, leading to declaration of a public health emergency by the government. Since Tuesday, the Delhi administration has taken several measures to bring down the level of pollutants in the air. On Wednesday, a high-level meeting chaired by Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal activated the relevant measures under the Graded Response Action Plan or GRAP put in place following last year’s intervention by the courts. Trucks have been barred from entering the city, parking fees have been increased four times, construction activities have been suspended and the municipality has been asked to sprinkle water to suppress dust particles.

But the measures have come too late and are still to address some of the fundamental problems fuelling what Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal called “gas chamber” conditions. The primary of these is crop burning in neighbouring states such as Punjab and Haryana, which the Delhi government feels contributes about 25% of the pollutants in the air during this time of the year. In fact, several cities across north India are facing similar levels of pollution.

Significantly, even the GRAP does not have much in it to tackle this menace. Sorting the crop burning problem requires concerted economic remedies. Farmers burn the stubble because it is more economical than using labour or machines to remove it. What was required was a clear plan to incentivise farmers who do not burn crop through economic inducements, something which has clearly not happened if one went by statements of the chief ministers.

On Thursday, Kejriwal and Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh got into a verbal tussle. As Kejriwal blamed crop burning for Delhi choking in the smog, Singh accused the Aam Aadmi Party leader of lacking in understanding of issues but having an opinion on everything. “There is 20 million ton of paddy straw, where do I ask farmers to store? So Kejriwal doesn’t understand this problem,” he argued. The statement made it clear that Singh too doesn’t understand the gravity of the problem that is putting the health of millions across north India under danger. That the Aam Aadmi Party and the Congress are political rivals in Punjab has not helped either. The menace required initiation of measures months before the onset of winter, something that did not transpire.

The National Green Tribunal’s comments on Thursday exposed this utter apathy on part of the governments concerned. The tribunal noted that no concrete measures have been put in place over the last one year. What has happened is trading of charges between departments with files moving from one office to another.

Even Kejriwal’s attempt to rake up the crop burning problem looks like an easy way out of the problem. The Delhi administration has failed to learn lessons from mega cities across the world that had faced similar situation in the past. For example, when pollution went up to dangerous levels in Singapore in the 2000s, the government reacted by increasing taxes on large cars and discouraging private transport. In Delhi, rather than systematically taking on the car lobby which has resisted regulations, the government resorts to stop gap measures such as the odd-even plan, under which cars with odd and even number plates will ply only on alternate days. This plan will come into force on Monday for five days. In fact, even emergency measures were not initiated on time. Records show that the GRAP was not implemented as per the mandate, with citizens getting no alerts about the deteriorating conditions.

The governments should realise that temporary measures can never be a substitute to sustained long-term measures in tackling a serious environmental problem such as pollution.

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