Way back in 1972, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had famously and inextricably linked poverty and environmental pollution at the United Nations Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm. Much earlier, Mahatma Gandhi stated that “the earth provides enough to satisfy every mans need, but not every mans greed”.
Air pollution, which now is a pervasive phenomenon in urban areas anywhere in the world, has become a deadlocked debate in Delhi over the last few days.
The tragedy is that the poor suffer the most as they have no choice of “end-of-the pipe” response that includes standing in the line in tony Khan Market to buy costly, colourful and convenient masks — which, in reality, mask the real problem.
So, what are the facts?
Delhi’s population can be put at around 25 million and is likely to double within a decade, mainly due to migrants pouring in from rural areas. The air pollution and ecosystem degradation are a dominant result of a fast and unstoppable urbanising habitat as experienced everywhere in the world. Already more than half of the world’s people live in urban areas and India is not an exception.
Ten percent of Delhi’s population lives below the poverty line. It is estimated that nearly half of the population, mostly migrants in slums, small huts and even on the roads, use bio-mass of some kind — dried cow dung cakes, firewood or saw dust — for cooking and other domestic use. Such use increases in winter when water is also heated for baths.
Most of the bio-mass involves incomplete combustion and hence contributes heavily to the air pollution. As per one estimate, India’s biomass use for domestic purpose is nearly one-third of the national consumption of coal.
Provision of the smokeless chulha/stoves, biogas, natural gas or other methods would reduce the pollution from these sources. That, however, would take time and is costly. Further, the developmental aspiration of the poor is to look for a gas connection rather than tinkered technology of improved chulhas.
Even in an emergency, the poor cannot be asked to stop use of bio-mass for cooking. In the long term, briquetting of the biomass for efficient burning and use of natural gas are definite solutions to prevent air pollution from the need-based use of bio-mass by the poor.
Delhi is not far from the fertile plains dominated by agriculture that acts as the food bowl for most of India. Burning of agri-residue has been an age-old practice and farmers have experienced benefits of this for subsequent crops, even if some research shows that it does not contribute to the fertility of the soil. What farmers are unaware of is the contribution of this burning to increased air pollution.
Apart from creating awareness, there is need to demonstrate to farmers the alternatives to keep soil fertility and use the residue for briquetting to produce smokeless fuel and to produce power or other uses without contributing to pollution. That would also enhance the income of farmers.
The pollution from 12 million passenger and commercial vehicles, used by both the rich and poor in Delhi, is the result of use of fossil fuel. Enhancing the standards of fuel efficiency and banning old diesel vehicles are the measures adopted by a number of countries. Its implementation gets hampered not only by vehicle owners who engage in corrupt practices but even the vehicle manufacturers, as was exposed in the case of Volkswagen. It is the greed of society that leads to such corrupt practices. Corruption aids pollution.
Construction activities constitute a real need and have become the basis for national development priorities for better infrastructure, construction of homes, roads, hospitals, schools, overbridges and commercial centres. There has been steep growth in India’s housing sector as incomes have risen over the last decade. In Delhi, by 2020, nearly 20 million more houses will be constructed along with its own infrastructure like sewage plants.
Banning construction when the air pollution goes in the “red alert” zone may be an emergency solution. In the longer term, we have to ensure that construction activities, including the factories that produce construction material like cement, are dust-free and as per norms.
Coal-fired power plants, that have become mainstay of India’s target of “electricity for all”, are significant contributors to air pollution. These plants can be shut down for a few days in winter as an emergency measure but then essential services would suffer. Building alternative sources of power would take time. Hence, demand-side energy efficiency measures and clean coal technologies and efficient power plants would help in reducing air pollution in the short term.
In the long term, India has to develop transparent and time-targeted plans to move away from coal, as is done by many emerging countries, including China.
The alternative development model of use of solar, wind, nuclear and small hydro will also help in mitigating climate change, which needs more ambitious targets than what India has given for the Paris Climate Treaty. As per a UN report, the world has to start reducing its dependency on fossil fuel and totally phase them out within the next 50 years.
“Surgical strikes” are the right measures for the emergent situation. But for healthy and sustainable development and for “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas”, we also need to strike a balance of fire-fighting disaster management and long-term surge of preventive measures on a war footing.