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Above: The November smog takes away the shine of Delhi’s iconic India Gate area/Photo: UNI

It is that time of the year when Delhi and the NCR become deadly gas chambers. While the Supreme Court has cracked down on polluters, what can be done to clean this toxic air?

By Ramesh Menon

Everyone knew pollution would choke those living in the National Capital Region (NCR) before, during and after Diwali. But little was done to offset it despite the torture residents went through last year. Obviously, no lessons were learnt. However, a series of directions by the Supreme Court are haunting both the state and central governments.

Sources told India Legal that the Narendra Modi government is likely to challenge some of these directions as it cannot afford to fight the rising anger among the electorate with both state and parliamentary elections round the corner. As 17 areas in Delhi have touched severe air quality levels, a Supreme Court bench headed by Justice Madan B Lokur ruled that all 15-year-old petrol and 10-year-old diesel vehicles be impounded in Delhi-NCR. Government sources said that this was not the solution. The right thing to do was to impound only polluting vehicles and not look at their age, since, if maintained well, they could still run well and not pollute at all.

There are around 3.3 lakh 10-year-old diesel vehicles and 36.7 lakh 15-year-old petrol vehicles in Delhi. It will be a logistical nightmare to store these vehicles as there is shortage of space. The apex court had even pulled up the Delhi police for parking seized vehicles inside and outside police stations which had become a breeding ground for mosquitoes and diseases.

Other measures to curb pollution are also underway. The Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA), appointed by the Supreme Court, called for halting construction activity, use of diesel-run power generators, operation of brick kilns and burning of garbage. The EPCA even went to the extent of threatening to stop private cars from plying in Delhi if air quality worsens. Bhure Lal, chairman, EPCA, said: “Let us hope the air pollution situation in Delhi doesn’t deteriorate or else we will have to stop plying of private vehicles.”

If this happens, it will be unprecedented and paralyse offices and business activities. Public transport will not be able to take this load anyway.  There are over 35 lakh vehicles in the NCR which the EPCA says contribute to 40 percent of the pollution. Incidentally, there are more than a crore of registered vehicles in the capital and seven lakh new vehicles are registered every year.

To understand the severity of pollution levels, one needs to understand what these levels are. An air quality index between 0 and 50 is considered “good”, 51 and 100 is “satisfactory”, 101 and 200 is “moderate”, 201 and 300 “is poor”, 301 and 400 is “very poor” and 401 and 500 is “severe”. Delhi and the NCR have crossed 401, raising alarm.

This can damage health in the long term. Asthma and upper respiratory diseases can spring up. Pollution from fireworks is more dangerous than vehicular pollution as they release dangerous heavy metals into the atmosphere, leading to respiratory and skin problems. Burning of waste in landfills and industrial areas is another health hazard. Burning of plastic and rubber waste leads to fumes which are carcinogenic and also leads to cardiovascular diseases.

In another controversial order, the Supreme Court permitted the sale and manufacture of “green” firecrackers which have low emission across the country. But the irony was that no one knew what green crackers were and where to buy them. While the Court made the sale of green crackers mandatory in the NCR, traders do not have them and it would take at least three months to produce them. Only some labs have created them and they are not available anywhere. These crackers also must fall within the noise pollution limits and can be burst only in designated spots. Some firecrackers that led to excessive pollution like ladis were banned.

A Supreme Court bench comprising Justices Ashok Bhushan and AK Sikri also specified that firecrackers would be burst only for two hours every day between 8 pm and 10 pm. The police were told to enforce this order. But how it will is a million-dollar question.

The task is enormous and there is lack of personnel to execute the order. The Court also directed all states to explore the feasibility of community cracker bursting in designated areas only during festivals.

As Article 21 (right to life) applies to both firecracker manufacturers and the general public, the Court said that it needed to strike a balance while considering a countrywide ban on firecrackers. It wanted the central government to suggest ways to curb pollution caused by firecrackers.

Rs 1 crore punishment

Polluting units play havoc in Mahul

Mahul in Mumbai is a heavily industrialised area dotted with polluting units. The air is pungent due to emissions from Hindustan Petroleum, Bharat Petroleum, Tata Power, Rashtriya Chemical and Fertilisers and other factories. Residents find their eyes and throats burning all the time. They also suffer from rashes, falling hair and skin eruptions.

Irate residents filed a case with the National Green Tribunal (NGT), complaining of high pollution levels. In December 2015, the NGT ordered the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) to prepare a comprehensive action plan within two months to control air pollution in Mahul. Not wanting to do it as it would expose numerous industrial units that were flouting pollution norms, the Maharashtra government chose to challenge the order in the Supreme Court. However, the apex court ruled that the directions of the NGT must be expeditiously implemented.

Nothing happened.

The residents filed an Execution Application in 2016. When it came up for hearing, the MPCB asked for more time, which was granted. At the next hearing, it asked for yet more time. The NGT remarked that the MPCB was playing a game of hide-and-seek based on its convenience and imposed a fine of Rs 1 crore for non-compliance with its directions to act against the polluting industries. The case will come up for hearing next on November 15.

An expert panel headed by the Central Pollution Control Board advised residents to avoid strenuous outdoor activities like jogging or running. The Court told the government that poor people cannot be asked to stay indoors and not work as their livelihood would be affected. A bench of Justices Madan B Lokur, S Abdul Nazeer and Deepak Gupta said: “They are doing heavy duty manual work. You cannot tell them that you stop your work because it is unsafe for you to work in the morning. This is a very critical situation. It is horrible.”

To make matters worse, stubble burning in Haryana and Punjab has added to the poor air quality. This happens every year during the onset of winter when the sowing is done. As it is expensive to employ labourers to remove the stalks, the farmers just set them on fire. Maps of NASA showed haziness over huge tracts of land in these two states due to the smoking fields.

The Court also imposed a construction ban across the NCR for 10 days as loose soil, dust and building material were compounding the problem. An IIT Kanpur study on sources of pollution in the NCR, published in 2016, said that road dust was the biggest culprit in air pollution.

The government’s moves to tackle pollution such as shutting power plants, diesel generator sets and brick kilns are only emergency measures. There are no long-term action plans to combat the toxic air pollution that is causing ailments or killing people.

The blame game will continue between the Delhi government, the centre and the states of Punjab and Haryana. And citizens will be caught in this deadly dance of death.

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