Toxic levels of air pollution monitored over Delhi almost every week from November 1 last year to January 6 showed that the government’s emergency plans to tackle the city’s annual crisis have failed, said a report of United Residents Joint Action or URJA, a collective of the city’s resident welfare associations.

The report comes at a time when Delhi’s air-quality rose above hazardous levels on January 17 in some areas, up to three times higher.

The report summarised the findings of 45 right-to-information applications filed to 14 government departments. Responses were sought from central, state and municipal bodies to assess the effectiveness of the Graded Response Action Plan or GRAP, the strategy launched by the government in January 2017.

The analysis of data collected by URJA for 68 days showed that except one day in central Delhi’s ITO region, the capital’s air quality was continually above permissible limits.

To curb rising air pollution in Delhi and the National Capital Region, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change had notified the implementation of GRAP through the Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority. In November 2016, air pollution in Delhi had reached 16 times above safe levels, and the Delhi government had declared an emergency.

Over the last two years, Delhi’s pollution levels were high enough to affect the respiratory and cardiac systems of even healthy people. The health impacts of this pollution may be experienced even during “light physical activity”, as IndiaSpend reported on June 15, 2018.

GRAP entails a number of actions to be taken as soon as the city’s air reports toxic particulate matter, or PM 2.5, at levels between 61-120 µg/m3 and 300+ µg/m3. The World Health Organisation standard for permissible level of PM 2.5 in the air (24-hour average) is 25 μg/m3 while India’s National Ambient Air Quality standard allows levels 1.4 times higher at 60 μg/m3.

The GRAP system categorises pollution levels based on national air-quality index readings generated by the air-quality monitors of the Central Pollution Control Board. The steps taken under GRAP are graded as per the level of pollution. These include a ban on garbage burning and entry of trucks into the city, and the closure of power plants, brick kilns and stone crushers depending on how bad the air quality is, as IndiaSpend reported on November 9, 2017.

The problem has worsened in Delhi due to a number of reasons – crop burning in neighbouring states, construction activity, traffic and emission from power plants. In winter, the problem becomes even more acute because stagnant winds do not allow the pollution to disperse.

Air quality unhealthy through the study period

As we mentioned earlier, data showed that Delhi’s air quality was unhealthy throughout the 68-day period of the study except for a small exception. The nine monitors yielded 612 readings and PM 2.5 levels were observed to be above 300 µg/m3 in 104 cases. When ambient PM 2.5 levels persist at above 300µg/m3 for more than 48 hours, all the emergency steps listed under GRAP are activated.

“The information received from the RTI responses shows that despite such detailed process and notification to act when air quality levels are bad, there is a lack of proper implementation of measures and awareness levels of departments responsible for overseeing implementation to curb pollution under GRAP,” said the URJA press release.

Source: Author’s calculations based on data shared by the Central Pollution Control Board with the United Residents Joint Action of Delhi. Note: For the period under study (November 1, 2018 to January 6, 2019, firstly, 24-hour average levels of PM 2.5 were calculated. A mean of these 24-hour averages gave was then compared with the World Health Organization permissible limit (25 µg/m3).

All the regions covered in the study reported average PM 2.5 levels at least five times above the permissible limit in this period. Anand Vihar in east Delhi and Ashok Vihar in west Delhi showed an average of PM 2.5 levels about 1o times above the permissible limit.

The Central Pollution Control Board, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee and the India Meteorological Department – the three agencies responsible for keeping tabs on the city’s air quality – are supposed to work in tandem to process data and inform the Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority about their findings. The Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority then formulates measures to combat pollution and convey them to the respective authorities. However, the coordination between the agencies was not smooth.

Only 39% attendance at meetings

GRAP cannot work effectively unless various agencies across the NCR and neighbouring states work together, IndiaSpend had reported on November 9, 2017. There are 12 agencies responsible for the implementation of GRAP.

It is evident from the URJA report that the attendance of the responsible agencies was low at 39%.

Source: United Residents Joint Action (URJA) of Delhi report Note: A total of 18 meetings were held.

Of the 18 GRAP meetings held, the Public Works Department, Delhi Metro Rail Corporation and the DISCOMs attended just one. Of the 12 agencies involved, seven attended less than half these meetings.

“The Graded Response Action Plan is a well-thought-out policy, the need is to implement it on the ground and tackle the air pollution levels rising every year in Delhi,” said Atul Goyal, the president of URJA. “However, the RTI replies show that most agencies and departments are unaware of their duties and responsibilities as clearly mentioned under GRAP. But with many important questions remaining unanswered by the agencies, it is evident that they are either not aware of the steps under GRAP or not ready to perform their duties. In both situations, the policy is a failure, leaving the citizens of Delhi gasping for breath.”

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