No blueprint offered for tackling toxic pollution in Delhi

As China declares war on smog, no Indian political party has offered a blueprint for tackling a problem that has become toxic

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 March, 2014, 10:22pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 2:06pm

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang recently declared "war" on air pollution.

But China's stern approach to tackling the scourge is in stark contrast to New Delhi's political class, which remains blasé about the city's toxic air despite looming general elections.

Even though New Delhi recently surpassed Beijing as the "world's most polluted major city" - according to India's Centre for Science and Environment, an international consortium dedicated to promoting democracy and sustainability - pollution remains a non-issue for all major political parties.

No party has offered a blueprint for tackling the problem.

This includes the Aam Admi Party, the rookie party that has vowed to combat India's entrenched corruption and claimed power in the Delhi Legislative Assembly elections in December.

The party's spokesman said the party "remains committed" to the environment, but critics say the party has done nothing to push the issue since its win in the capital's elections.

India's governing United Progressive Alliance coalition has done no better, according to environmentalists. They have accused the Congress party-led coalition of sitting on a plan drafted more than two years ago to deal with Delhi's pollution.

The report languishes while it awaits responses from the government. "The plan is still hanging fire due to governmental inaction, clearly demonstrating that while Delhi has lost the momentum in its fight against pollution, Beijing has continued to be aggressive," said Anumita Roychowdhury, a member of the report's drafting committee.

She said the plan suggested a slew of measures to clean up Delhi's air. "We've recommended that the centre introduce Euro V and VI emission norms to minimize particulate and oxides of nitrogen," Roychowdhury said referring to Europe's staggered pollution standards.

"Currently Delhi has only Euro IV norms. Our other suggestions include expansion of CNG [compressed natural gas], upgrade of public transport, a parking policy and parking tariff, to name a few," she said.

The environmentalist said that apart from adding a few more CNG buses, Metro lines and cycling paths, Delhi's government had done little to improve its air quality since 2008. "In contrast, Beijing has implemented Euro V and is far more aggressive," Roychowdhury said.

According to the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), devised by Yale University, New Delhi's air is more toxic than Beijing's, which has drawn global attention for its smog problems.

Delhi's pollution rating for PM2.5 particulates under the EPI is almost five times the safety threshold for humans. An asphyxiating smog - caused by 7.2 million vehicles, industrial emissions and burning of agricultural waste - hangs over the city for much of the year.

According to the World Health Organisation, air pollution is the fifth biggest killer in India. More people die from asthma in India than in any other country, according to the WHO's Global Burden of Disease report. Local medics agree that the problem must be solved.

"PM2.5 is a deadly mixture of ammonia, carbon, nitrates, sulfate and particulate matter that enters the bloodstream and triggers breathing disorders, even cancer," said Dr Sanjay Mahajan, a Delhi-based general physician. "We're all going to be very sick if Delhi's pollution isn't controlled soon."

Community activist Alka Dheer said politicians were not the only ones at fault.

"The citizens are also to blame as they don't treat pollution as a mainstream issue," said Dheer.

Dheer added that with more Indians making the leap into the middle class, their environmental footprint would increase.

Balbir Singh Seechewal , a well-known environmental activist in Punjab who has been spearheading a river anti-pollution campaign, has asked all political parties to prioritize environmental protection in their election manifestos.

"People must deny power to political leaders who're insensitive to ecology," he said.