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Choked By Choice

Choked By Choice

The rising sun invisible, setting sun as pale as the moon, the skies above Delhi on the onset of this winter is a hazy vault! The denizens of the National Capital Region (NCR) wearing anti-pollution masks battling the thick layer of toxic smog cloaking the air and causing untold suffering from many a respiratory illness, breathlessness and excessive cough are under the capital punishment. While the media get inundated describing  the  alarming level of  Delhi’s smoggy pollution and TV-channels conduct heated discussions on the menace, the powers that be seem to be accommodative of the severe  level of air pollution that choke Delhi. The smog-struck Delhi makes a mockery of the much hyped Swachh Bharat Campaign, one of the flagships initiatives of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his equally amplified slogan of ‘good governance’.

Battling bad air and clearing the unhealthy haze calls for a serious governmental course correction. Despite the Air Quality Index (AQI) on Delhi that registered from ‘Very Poor’ to ‘Severe Category’, the Supreme Court-mandated Body on Environmental Pollution and Prevention Control Authority (EPCA) with its Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) had ordered a pre-Diwali ban on firecrackers, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) confirmed the Capital’s ongoing air pollution crisis an ‘emergency’, no concrete measures were put in place to tackle the hazardous situation. While the EPCA and NGT were found on different pages on the implementation of the odd-even policy of road rationing in Delhi, the NGT sought for exemption to two-wheelers, women and government-servants with AAP-government dilly dallying with its response to the NGT, the level of the Particulate Matter (PM 2.5) in Delhi air rose seven times more than the normal and the smog-choked people were casualty.

Not long ago the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared Delhi as the most polluted city in the world with 13 of the 20 worst impacted places in North India. Even after pollution in India plummeted to dangerous levels so as to name it as a “Public Health Emergency”, by the Indian Medical Association, no decision maker in the capital accepted the ground reality and had the honesty to declare it a “National Emergency”. Amid the loud noise being raised on raising the air pollution level by road dust raised by vehicles and the burning of the agricultural residues like stubbles, of course they contribute to the huge smoggy menace, few of us are aware of the furnace oil-type fuel dirty and toxic fuel being used by industries, that too enjoying the exemption from tax while clean fuels are taxed. Under the goods and services tax, the industries that use furnace oil-type fuel - dirty and toxic though they are, are given a full refund. Since the natural gas is left out of the GST and heavily taxed with no refund possible, even if some of the industrialists opt for clean air they along with the general public have no choice to breathe easy.

It’s a disgrace that India is importing the world’s dirtiest fuel, pet coke, from America, while it is banned there to curb domestic pollution! China has stopped importing this fuel. The callous manner India allows this dangerous import under the Open General License decries the governmental apathy towards the country’s domestic problems. Few years back, India imported some 6 million tonnes of this refinery by-product, and recently there was reportedly a hike to 14 million tonnes import of these dirty fuels. Add to this with our domestic production of 12-14 million tonnes, small wonder India has won the disgraceful distinction of the world’s pollution outcast!

That pollution caused by private vehicles irrespective of two or four wheelers can be arrested by restricting their number isn’t a fact hard to comprehend. Automobiles are the biggest contributor to pollution and, most importantly, diesel emissions are carcinogens. However, despite the best of our effort to reduce the vehicular emission, we add more vehicles on the road! It is indeed a cruel irony of our times. India’s capital smoggy-crisis can be confronted only by a massive scale ramping up of the public transport. And exactly herein lies our criminal negligence. With not a single new bus in the past few years, no movement on inter-city public transport in the NCR, no effort to build roads for pedestrians or cyclists, no last-mile connectivity made, Delhi has been a total failure.

I n the mad race for industrial development, India is myopic to industries emitting large quantities of toxic wastes and fumes which end up causing huge pollution. An honest and strong political will together with the collaboration of various sectors is basic to the very f raming of a sound action plan to arrest pollution. However, it was distressing to note that even recently when the Supreme Court thankfull y stepped in to ban the use of dirty fuels in the NCR and egged on the ministry of environment, forests and climate change to issue emission standards for pollutants from using high-sulphur fuels and combustion, Industry was out seeking all possible means to water down the rulings. It’s a pity that Indian Industry sector backed by the present pro-industry government, cares little for clean air.

Governments both at the centre and states giving mutual blames are of no use unless a viable mechanical waste management is put in place of manual sweepers. Agriculture-based states like Punjab and Haryana that are easily blamed for crop-burning should be provided with equipment for the alternative use of their crop residue. Pollution in general is an unwelcome by-product of blind, frenzied technological development. Every metropolitan city has its dark belly of stinking slums where unhygienic lifestyle is a given pattern. It’s no exaggeration to say that ‘modern technology owes ecology an apology’. For, anything else one is interested in is not going to happen if one can’t breathe the air and drink the water. Governments at the centre, states and cities need to make an honestly concerted effort to bring India out of its polluted existence, not only in winter months but all through the year.

As Gaylord Nelson succinctly puts, “The wealth of the nation is its air, water, soil, forests, minerals, rivers, lakes, oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats and biodiversity… that’s all there is. That’s the whole economy. That’s where all the economic activity and jobs come from. These biological systems are the sustaining wealth of the world.”

(Published on 20th November 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 47)