Poverty, Prosperity and Pollution: Deciphering Delhi Debacle

Many think that Mrs Gandhi that time probably meant ‘greed’ and not ‘need’ in that her reverberating question. Much earlier, Mahatma Gandhi stated that ‘The earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not every man’s greed’.

Air pollution which now is pervasive phenomenon in urban backdrop anywhere in the world, was the scene of debacle in Delhi. It is intricately linked to poor and rich in Delhi, former represents the needy section society and later a greedy one.

The problem of air pollution is now scientifically recognised all over the globe. It is mainly the by-product of urbanization process and is nothing short of extremely dangerous phenomenon with dire consequences. Air pollution essentially consists of PM 2.5 which is particulate matters mainly product of combustion, organic compounds and metal of size of 2.5 micron. These micro particles are so small (dusty sand is about 100 micron and human hair has dimeter of about 50 micron and pollens we see are of size 10 microns) that they can penetrate into our blood through lungs and reach all parts of the body including brain. That gives rise to threats of cancer, heart attacks and host of respiratory diseases. Nearly 7 million people a year are killed prematurely by outdoor and indoor air pollution globally, according to a landmark new study published by Nature and WHO in 2014 and 2015. These deaths are more than malaria, HIV/Aids, road accidents and suicides combined. Majority of deaths due to air pollution are in India and China.

The tragedy of commons is that poor suffer the most in case of air pollution as they have no choice of ‘end-of-the pipe’ response that includes standing in the line in up-end Khan Market to buy costly, colourful and convenient masks- which in reality mask the real problem.

Unless we come to the terms of the seminal and primary facts of our developmental imperatives and unsustainable life style that includes indiscriminate production and consumption, that arise from poor’s need and rich’s greed, we would continue to be known as argumentative Indians. Poor section of the society with their inadequate capability and fragile ability to face air pollution, would continue to suffer the most.

So what are the facts?

Delhi’s population can be put around 25 million and likely to double within a decade mainly due to migrants pouring in from rural area. The air pollution and ecosystem degradation is dominant result of the fast and unstoppable urbanizing habitat as experienced everywhere in the world. Already more than half of the world people live in urban area and India is not an exception.

Move towards urbanization is inevitable phenomenon that roots from need as well as greed. While late President of India , Dr. Abdul Kalam,  engaged in the dream of PURA (Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas) to reverse the migration from rural to urban centres, PM Modi sees urbanization as an opportunity to reduce poverty, if the cities are strengthened. Urbanization is developmental imperative and need of the hour.

10 percent of the population in Delhi lives below 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 like dried cow dung cakes, firewood and saw dust, for cooking and other domestic use. Such use increases for heating the water for bath in winter. 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 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 developmental aspiration of the poor is to look for the gas connection rather than tinkered technology of improved chulha. Even in emergency, poor cannot be asked to stop use of bio-mass for cooking. In 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 poor.

Delhi is not far from the fertile planes dominated by agricultural that acts as food bowl for most of India. Burning of agri-residue has been age old practice and farmers have experienced benefits of the same for the subsequent crops, even if some research shows that it does not contribute to the fertility of the soil. What farmers are unaware is the contribution of the burning of residues to the increased air pollution. Apart from creating awareness, there is need to demonstrate to farmers the alternatives to keep soil fertility and use 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 framers.

Pollution from 12 million passenger and commercial vehicles, used by both rich and poor in Delhi with varying pollution impacts, is the result of use of fossil fuel in internal combustion engine of the vehicles, its incomplete combustion, idling in the traffic and use of diesel. Enhancing the standards of fuel efficiency, banning the old diesel vehicles are the measures used by number of countries. Its implementation gets hampered not only by vehicle owners who engage in corrupt practices with law makers but even the vehicle manufacturers, who cheat the law makers as was exposed in case of Volkswagen. It is the greed of the society that leads to such corrupt practices. Corruption aids pollution.

Construction activities constitute real need and have become basis for national development priorities for better infrastructure, construction for homes, roads, hospitals, schools, overbridges and commercial centre. There has been steep growth in India’s housing sector as incomes have risen over last decade. In Delhi by 2020 nearly 20 million more houses will be constructed along with its own infrastructure like sewage plants.  Banning them when air pollution goes in ‘red alert’ zone may be emergency solution. In 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.

The coal fired power plants, that have become main stay of India’s target of ‘electricity for all’ are the significant contributors to air pollution. These plants can be shut down for few days in winter as emergency measure but then the essential services would suffer. Building alternative sources of power would take time. Hence demand side energy efficiency measures and clean coal technologies, efficient power plants would help in reducing air pollution in short term. In long term, India has to develop the 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, small hydro will also help in mitigating climate change which needs more ambitious targets that what India has given for the Paris Climate Treaty.  As per the UN report the world has to start reducing the dependency on fossil fuel and totally phased them out within next 50 years.

And then there are adverse atmospheric conditions like temperatures, dips and surges in pressure and importantly wind intensity and direction that are hardly in hands of any one, leave alone policy makers. These conditions accentuate air-pollution that may exist even limited way. Even cities like London and Paris praised for their blue skies face such adverse conditions that necessitate quick temporary measures to diminish impacts. These include days when cars had to be off the roads and odd-even schemes. Cities in developing countries like Beijing and Mexico City regularly do it. Special cells on the lines of fire-brgade are now new ways of city-management.

‘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 the balance of fire-fighting disaster management and long term surge of preventive measures on war footing. END

By Rajendra Shende, Chairman TERRE Policy Centre, former Director UNEP and IIT-Alumni

« 1 2»

Leave a Reply