Monday, June 5, 2023

Hitting a Roadblock

The “red light on, gaadi off” campaign of the Delhi government has hit a hurdle with the L-G raising objections to it. This is despite such campaigns running successfully in other countries to reduce vehicular pollution.

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The row between the Delhi L-G and the state government continues. This time it is over pollution. Delhi Environment Minister Gopal Rai on October 31 said that the state government had resubmitted to the L-G a file regarding the “Red Light On,  Gaadi Off” campaign to curb vehicle pollution with evidence that such drives had reduced vehicular pollution in cities in India, the US and the UK.

The “Red Light On, Gaadi Off” campaign involves deploying 2,500 volunteers at around 100 intersections in the city to get people to turn off their engines at red lights.

Earlier on October 29, the L-G, while calling the initiative an ad hoc measure and ineffective against air pollution, had returned the file to Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and advised him to reconsider the proposal. It was also pointed out by the L-G that the inhuman and exploitative use of civil defense volunteers at extremely polluted traffic intersections and sites increased their health and physical risk. He said that the basic premise of the campaign, which risks the health of a few individuals for protecting the health of many, was faulty and did not appear to have any parallel in any other civilised metropolitan city. He suggested that the state government involve technological interventions to address the long-standing problem instead of ad hoc steps.

According to Rai, a study by the Central Road Research Institute (CRRI) in 2019 showed that keeping the engine on at traffic signals could increase pollution levels by over 9%. Only 20% commuters switch off the ignition while waiting for the red light to become green, but during this campaign, about 80% people turned off their vehicles, the government added.

Moreover, a study by the Petroleum Conservation Research Association (PCRA) under the Union Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas at the Bhikaji Cama Place traffic intersection showed that over 62% people started switching off their vehicles after a similar campaign, said Rai.

According to government estimates, vehicular contribution makes up 80% of nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide in Delhi’s environment and the transport sector accounts for 28% of PM2.5 emissions in Delhi. Citing data from PCRA, Rai had earlier said if people switch off engines at traffic signals, pollution can be cut down by 15-20%.

Rai said that during the study, it was observed that only 13.64% of car drivers switched off the vehicle at a red light before the awareness campaign. But during the campaign, it became 46.45%. Similarly, two-wheelers increased from 42.73% to 83.72% and three-wheelers increased from 30.49% to 81.33%. The number of buses increased from 6.94% to 28%, and that of trucks from 17.54% to 43.02%. After this campaign, the number of vehicles turning off their engines at the red light was more than before. After the campaign ended, 33.48% of car drivers, 80.12% of two-wheelers, 77.66% of three-wheelers, 20.72% of buses and 37.43% of trucks switched off their engines.

The state government had started this campaign on October 16, 2020. Under it, officials from the transport department, environmental volunteers and traffic police would urge drivers to switch off their vehicles at red lights. Thousands of volunteers participated in the mega campaign which is being conducted in 70 constituencies of the Capital. With pollution rising to alarming levels in Delhi, awareness is the only way to reduce it.

The share of stubble burning in Delhi’s PM2.5 pollution rose to 32% on November 2, the highest so far this year. This is due to the increase in stubble burning in Punjab and wind speeds. Before Diwali, the Delhi government passed an order banning the storage, sale and use of all types of firecrackers till January 1, 2023. The Supreme Court had refused to urgently hear a petition against the state government’s strict order.

For the last few days, the poisonous air has been spreading in the entire NCR in the evening. The condition of other cities in the NCR, namely Ghaziabad, Gurgaon and Faridabad, is also similar. In Delhi, the needle of Air Quality Index (AQI) is fixed at 449 on the red mark of danger. In Ghaziabad, it is at 375. The air became so bad that on November 4, the Delhi government announced that primary schools would remain shut from November 5 till further orders, while outdoor activities were curtailed for senior classes.

The Supreme Court on November 4 heard a petition seeking its urgent intervention in checking the rising levels of air pollution in Delhi. In a plea before the bench of then Chief Justice of India (CJI) UU Lalit and Justice Bela M Trivedi, the petitioner himself spoke of Delhi choking due to ever growing pollution. The plea mentioned that the AQI in NCR which has crossed 500 indicated the highest levels of pollution.

Stubble burning in the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana was cited as the reason for the sharp rise in pollution. The CJI, however, said that as per experts, stubble burning cannot be the sole reason for increased pollution, whereas the petitioner stated that the increase in the stubble burning led to rising pollution.

Meanwhile, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on November 4 directed the chief secretaries of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi to come before it either personally or on hybrid mode on November 10 for a detailed discussion on steps taken to address the issue. The Commission issued these directions on the basis of a report and the material on record received from the environment ministry in response to its notice issued on June 22 this year. The human rights body said that with winter approaching, it cannot remain a mute spectator to the situation affecting the human rights of citizens. 

Meanwhile, the third phase of the Graded Response Action Plan was implemented by the Commission for Air Quality Management. All activities that promote pollution have been banned. In most advisories, agencies and doctors are advising that when the AQI exceeds 300, then caution should be exercised and morning walks reduced. But the capital remains smoggy for several days. This has led to children having chest-related diseases and shortness of breath. Children and schools have now got used to the hybrid mode of school. 

According to an analysis by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, people in the national capital breathe the worst air between November 1 and November 15. The average PM2.5 level in Delhi then is often at 285 micrograms per cubic metre.

Air pollution is an issue of special concern especially after Covid as the virus has damaged many lungs.

—By Shivam Sharma and India Legal Bureau

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