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Diwali is Over. Now It is time for Revision of Ambient Air Quality Standards

Representative Image (Photo: PTI)

Representative Image (Photo: PTI)

Despite all the precautions and supposed punitive measures, thousands of people across Delhi-NCR burst crackers plummeting the AQI to more than 10 times higher than the safe limits.

Despite all the discussions, precautions and supposed punitive measures, hundreds and thousands of people across Delhi-NCR burst crackers plummeting the Air Quality Index (AQI) for last 48 hours to more than 10 times higher than the safe limits.

Till last week, helped with atmospheric conditions, Delhi-NCR was saved from hazardous exposure to toxic air pollutants, but last two days have taken the AQI from poor to very poor to hazardous.

Now, even as the next 10-15 days would be even more crucial, experts have raised questions about missing parameters/standards for measuring ultrafine particles and demanded revision of Ambient Air Quality Standards.

Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) analysed the real-time data on PM 2.5 concentrations to assess three things -- the trend during Diwali, the weekly trend before Diwali, and the overall trend since September 15.

Anumita Roychowdhury, CSE’s executive director-research and advocacy, said on Tuesday said that even when overall pollution level since September 15, 2019, was comparatively lower than in 2018 as favourable weather and advanced action prevented severely polluted days in Delhi-NCR, Diwali has changed all that.

The CSE analysed real-time data for Delhi, Gurugram, Faridabad, Noida and Ghaziabad to show how the Diwali night has ushered in the season’s first severe pollution peak due to the bursting of firecrackers.

The Graded Action Plan (GAP) had come into effect from October 15. Simultaneously, it is also important to verify the efficacy of the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) launched with much fanfare by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) in January this year.

Earlier this month, the national capital already witnessed an uncalled-for drama over credit-hogging over the not so clean air when Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was denied permission to speak at Denmark at the Mayor’s Conference.

Much to the chagrin of Kejriwal and Co, Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar held a press conference to claim that it was Modi government’s efforts that had led to good quality air.

But the AQI data over the last week has burst the claims of both the parties. The reasons are many and the, unfortunately, mostly the same as last year, despite claims by either government otherwise.

Intentions of both the governments' matter as does the manner in which implementation is done. And also matters is, going beyond the intense scrutiny and drumbeating over air pollution in Delhi-NCR, what is being done in other metros and several other cities, especially in north India, with fast increasing air pollution levels.

NCAP Implementation

When the MoEFCC had launched the NCAP in January this year, the overarching objective of NCAP was to reduce air pollution by 20-30% in the next five years, considering 2019 as the baseline. In the long-term, it is expected that National Air Quality Standards will be met in all (102) non- attainment cities. (CPCB has identified polluted cities in which the prescribed National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) are violated).

Lucknow witnessed the launch of the National Knowledge Network (KNK) earlier this month. J P S Rathore, the chairman of the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB), said, “Fifteen cities of UP are part of the NCAP.

UPPCB has prepared a good work-plan for these cities to reduce pollution. Streamlining of metro wok has also prevented the spread of pollution. Further, I would request that the academics should also focus on developing cutting edge technology towards reducing pollution from various sources.

S P Singh Parihar, chairman, CPCB said successful implementation of the NCAP will rely on robust coordination by a strong knowledge network which will support the NCAP where needed. Institutions of higher learning with strong research expertise in air quality, civil/mechanical engineering, environmental sciences, public health were identified as knowledge partners for State Pollution Control Boards to deliver on the objectives of the NCAP.

To that extent, an umbrella alliance, National Knowledge Network, NKN, of IITs/Labs/Universities have been created across 18 states in the country.

This network will act as a knowledge partner to the National Clean Air Program. Experts said a 3-pronged approach is adopted in achieving the overall goals of NCAP: (a) knowledge and database augmentation, (b) institutional strengthening and (c) mitigation of pollution sources.

Do we really know the problem in entirety?

At an ‘International Symposium on Air Pollution – Causes, Mitigation & Strategic Planning’ that was organised at the Amity University Gurgaon, experts questioned the government’s lackadaisical attitude in dealing with the problem in entirety.

The current set of National Ambient Air Quality Standards were launched in 2009. Ten years down the line, much water has flown below the bridge. There has been an immense rise in all kinds of pollutants. Also, the whole focus is on PM2.5 and PM10 but less on ultrafine particles qualified under PM1.0 and PM 0.5.​​

The problem with proper implementation also lies with the fact that there are just too many players in the arena. Multiplicity of agencies is a major hurdle that is hampering the combat against air pollution – CPCB, Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC), National Air Quality Monitoring Programme (NAMP), CAP, NCAP, Smart City Mission and then there are multiple knowledge partners. “What we need is an integrated approach. We need a single overarching agency for all cities,” said Dr Mukesh Khare of IIT Delhi.

He further pointed out that much of our instrumentation is not certified and there are no standards for it. “Censors are regulatory but (ultimately) only indicators. The MoEF&CC has to initiate action in this regard,” he added.

At the same event, Prof (Dr.) Kirk R. Smith, Professor, University of California Berkeley & Director, Collaborative Clean Air Policy Centre, Delhi, suggested India needs “airshed management” approach, which has already been an established practice.

“Delhi already faces problems with pollution coming from neighbouring states. Therefore, we badly need a different approach. As many as 57 cities are part of one airshed management district in the USA. If it can be done there, why not in India.”

Prashant Gargav, member secretary, CPCB, defended saying, “We are firming up and thinking about new standards as it is about 10 years since the last one was launched. But it is too soon to say anything, we are only at initial stage.”

Prompted by the National Green Tribunal, the government has already made “city-specific” plans for 102 of the 122 non-attainment cities.

Along with it, the CPCB is currently focusing on “prioritised actions” for the Delhi-NCR and providing bi-weekly forecasts for 13 hotspots wherever actions are needed to be intensified. The CPCB had carried out a survey to identify point sources of emissions and chalked out micro-level plans with the Delhi government.

Nivedita Khandekar is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She writes on environmental and developmental issues. She can be reached at nivedita_him@rediffmail.com or follow her on twitter at @nivedita_Him.