A mystery about the steps taken to check air pollution in Delhi-NCR is this: is closing down construction work and industries cheaper than taking various measures and installing equipment to prevent them from polluting?
They go on throughout the year except when air pollution attracts attention and spurs the authorities into action in winter.
Every major festival in India marks the end of one season and the beginning of another. For some years, Diwali has come to mark the beginning of the smog season ushering in a winter without the sun. While Delhi and NCR get more attention, cities of Uttar Pradesh to the east do not fare any better.
From late October, air becomes cooler and brings pollutants closer to the ground while slower winds prevent it from being blown away. Wind direction is from west to east and the burning of farm residues – ‘paraali’ or crop stubble – in western states of Haryana and Punjab is held responsible for this situation, along with the ever-present vehicular pollution and careless construction work.
To counter the menace, a graded response action plan (GRAP) was formulated in December 2016 under orders of the Supreme Court and is implemented since 2017 when air pollution reaches severe, very severe and hazardous or ‘emergency’ levels. Various measures are enforced, depending on the level of pollution. Delhi government has enforced odd-even traffic plan from Nov 4 till Nov 15 to reduce vehicular pollution. Other steps include closing down schools, stopping construction work, shutting down polluting industries, banning generators, etc.
Two of these activities that are banned, stand out. There are specific norms laid down for construction work by Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to keep them from creating pollution, as there are for industries. If they take those measures, they would not generate pollution and would not need to be shut down.
According to a former member of Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), Mahendra Pandey, industries are given consent to operate by MoEF only on the condition that they have taken the necessary measures to prevent pollution. This is supposed to be done after a site visit to inspect the plant and is to be renewed annually after proper inspection.
In the case of construction work, too, the MoEF lays down conditions – around 70 of them – for environmental clearance. Dust control is an essential part of it. These cover both the construction and operational phases of the building or installation constructed. Compliance is to be verified every six months.
That they still have to be shut down shows that the norms are not adhered to. Pandey lays the blame for this squarely at the door of CPCB. The clearances – annual for industries and half-yearly for construction – are a mere formality and are granted without due diligence. He says 15-20 units may be granted clearances in a single day, something which is extremely unlikely if on-site inspection is involved.
Another interesting aspect to this is every agency blaming the cause for pollution to something that is not under it. CPCB blames vehicular pollution since vehicles come under transport department while Delhi, Punjab, Haryana and Centre blame each other – except that Haryana and Centre don’t blame each other for they are both under BJP governments.