Delhi air pollution: Why what worked for China does not work in India


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Dec 29, 2010
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Delhi air pollution: Why what worked for China does not work in India

In 2014, Delhi contested a WHO finding saying that it had dirtier air than Beijing's -- the most polluted capital back then. Today, Beijing is readying to exit 200 most polluted cities, Delhi finds itself on the opposite end.

mitation is an art and to be successful at it, one needs to apply mind. This is not a statement on the governments accountable for checking pollution in Delhi and NCR. But if you have been schooled in north Indian states, chances are high that you heard teachers saying this. A lack of application, it appears, is the reason why what has been working for China for past few years has failed to reduce air pollution in Delhi.

The Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) for Delhi is largely inspired by the Chinese experience in Beijing, which was once - but not in a distant past -- the most polluted national capital of the world. Today, Delhi holds that dubious distinction.

Delhi air is poisonous. Schools have been closed. People have been advised by the government agencies to stay indoors. That, by the way, is no option for lakhs who have to weather Delhi air pollution to go to office and come back home. Street vendors and shopkeepers cannot shut their shops. This would bring Delhi's economy to a grinding halt. And, residents have to go out to local markets to buy groceries as families cannot stay hungry. Delivery boys, too, breathe the same poison if and when their reach your doorstep.

The GRAP is now out in Delhi-NCR. The cabinet secretary, the top-most bureaucrat of the country, is now monitoring the implementation of GRAP measures. He (read the central government) stepped in on Sunday.

Sunday was, incidentally, the day when Delhi air pollution reached its worst level since November 6, 2016. According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the 24-hour average air quality index (AQI) in Delhi stood at 494 at 4 pm on Sunday. Three years ago, it was 497.

Air quality monitor, SAFAR (System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research), under the Ministry of Earth Sciences, said Delhi's overall AQI reached as high as 708 around 5 pm on Sunday. The safe level AQI is 0-50. So, it was over 14 times worse than the recommended level.

An AQI between 51 and 100 is termed satisfactory, 101-200 is moderate, 201-300 poor, 301-400 very poor and 401-500 severe. An AQI that crosses 500 is 'severe plus' or calls for desperate emergency measures.

The GRAP was rolled out on October 15 when the AQI was going beyond 300. The air had already become very poor for breathing. If water were water, it would not be safe for bathing animals.

Delhi air pollution Live Updates

Now, what does China so differently that Delhi has failed to do to clean its air from pollutants?

Beijing was the most polluted national capital in 2012-13 - for some years then - prompting the Chinese authorities to devise a plan. They came up with a four-tier National Air Quality Action Plan (NAQA) that is based on forecasts made by its pollution observing agencies.

In India, a similar 4-tier GRAP was adopted and notified by the Centre in 2016.

In Beijing, the NAQA calls for enhanced dust-control measure, curbs on private transport, stopping of outdoor activities of school children and health advisory for vulnerable groups of people when air quality index is predicted - repeat predicted - to be beyond 200 for one day. The Chinese model calls it blue alert.

A red alert is issued if the AQI prediction says it would be beyond 200 for four to five days. This is the ceiling for their desperate emergency measures.

In Delhi, the GRAP was rolled out when AQI was already beyond 300 for days. Air emergency was kicked in when it was beyond 400. These levels had already reached in Delhi when corresponding measures were rolled out.

Delhi air pollution level figures, according to air quality monitor SAFAR
In nutshell, the difference between success in China and failure in India is the threshold for rolling out their respective pollution control emergency plan. China works on prediction, hence has a preventive plan. India's model is somewhat like post-portem - the GRAP is rolled out when a certain level has already reached.

And, it is not like the authorities responsible for rolling out did not deliberate the issue. Four meetings of the Supreme Court-mandated task force took place between September 27 and October 24, during which air pollution level was going up.

Though stubble burning is a known villain of rising air pollution levels in Delhi-NCR and has been an annual offender, no direction came for preventing them till October 24 meeting.

Odd-even measures and non-peak working shifts are recommended in China based on prediction for worsening air quality. In Delhi, the same came into force, when pollution level had already reached severe-plus category.

The authorities may argue that the GRAP is based on PM2.5 and PM10 concentration level instead of AQI. The severe category is enforced when PM2.5 concentration crosses 250 mark or PM10 concentrations are more than 430 micrograms per cubic metres.

Odd-even scheme was rolled out on Monday in Delhi as part of GRAP to control air pollution. (Photo: Reuters)
Under GRAP, severe+ or emergency measures kick in when PM 2.5 concentrations over 250 micrograms per cubic metres persist for 48 hours. This is not based on predictions but on actual occurrence of pollution.

The GRAP could be a case of good imitation without application of adequate mind. As a consequence, Delhi -- which had contested a finding by the World Health Organisation in May 2014 that the national capital had the dirtiest atmosphere in the world -- sees mostly political blame game as Delhi air pollution chokes its residents and visitors.

In 2014, the government had admitted that Delhi's pollution level was "comparable" with that of Beijing but it was still cleaner than the Chinese capital. Even the US embassy officials had then agreed based on their own air pollution data. Delhi's summer and monsoon air was considered much cleaner than that of Beijing. Only the winter air of Delhi competed with Beijing's.

Today, Beijing is on the verge of dropping out of the list of 200 most polluted cities in the world while Delhi continues its march toward the table topper Indian siblings - Kanpur and Faridabad.

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