‘Indian’ Data? Really? Huge Government Scheme Falls Into Easy Trap

'Indian' Da

On the positive side, the center’s proposal for a National Clean Air Programme or NCAA recognizes that recent policy interventions have only shown ‘minor improvement’ in levels of air pollution and that this is not sufficient – also, that addressing the problem needs looking way beyond Delhi & the NCR. All this constitutes probably a first by the government in tackling the problem on such a massive scale.

While public responses have been invited, the proposed policy needs to avoid certain pitfalls and be a global trendsetter. It’s too afraid and cautious, rather than being brave and bold, to have a significant effect. This is a pity because both government and non-government agencies and individuals have an arsenal of excellent work ready for review and offering much of the data and solutions that the document seeks.

Make no mistake about it, India could soon have the most polluted air amongst all large countries. In 2016, it saw the straight rise in the level of air pollution since 2010, while China actually saw a slight decline.
For starters, the document should drop any traces of the 1970s-like paranoia of a foreign hand. It says international reports with various “aggravated figures” without validation on the Indian population complicates the matters by created a “flawed public perception”. It goes on: international studies’ data on deaths due to air pollution may “not be realistic”. It calls for the need of “indigenous studies” and “more authentic Indian data and studies”. This risks ignoring work that could be valuable to India as well as wasting time re-inventing the wheel. Incidentally, speaking of aggravated figures, while one foreign study put the number of deaths due to indoor air pollution at 1.24 lakh, the center reportedly put it at five lakh annually.
Aside from apparent matters of dissing ‘foreign’ data without any solid counter-data, this approach is shaky at best. Firstly, the NCAP contradicts itself by calling for information sharing with international cooperation as part of ‘total’ technology transfer!
The fact is that there’s already solid ‘Indian’ data, and Indian scientists have no hesitation in referring to ‘foreign’ data. The center’s own CPCB has cited the Boston-based Health Effect Institute’s report on how fine, particulate pollution (up to PM 2.5) was associated with high daily mortality. Even the Supreme Court-mandated EPCA panel, led by Bhure Lal, cites HEI reports as well as others. And there’s world-class research done by Indian scientists, for example, this one from IIT Bombay, as well as NASA-based scientists – their report has this startling statistic that “At current levels, 99.9% of the Indian population is estimated to live in areas where the World Health Organisation (WHO) Air Quality Guideline of 10 µg/m3 was exceeded.”

Its worldview apart, the policy denies setting any target by which to reduce air pollution even though just weeks earlier, the government had announced a 50% cut in five years. This is hard to understand. Because, for perspective, the EPCA has already alleged Delhi, for example, needs a 70% cut in PM 2.5 levels. So why not set emission-cut targets, not for an international treaty but for the sake of Indians?

The policy also falls short by not mentioning the major issues with two, highly polluting fossil fuels – coal and diesel. One only has to see the success of putting down south Delhi’s coal-based Badarpur power plant, seen as a major PM 2.5 polluter, and contrast it with the pathetic, perennially bad air quality around the Singrauli coal belt. It has been rightly argued that for the next few years, India will need coal power to pull millions out of poverty. But keeping coal out of the NCAP is harming.

likely, diesel is fast losing favor in many global cities and countries, and for good reason too. It’s been five years since the WHO said emissions of diesel engines are carcinogenic. And even Euro 6 vehicles, which India will have from April next year, have failed to meet the tighter emission norms – with a failure rate of 90%. The very least that can be done is that private diesel cars are disincentivized and banned either from crowded cities or all together. There is, of course, no feasible alternative yet to diesel-engines for trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles. There will be a push-back from the auto sector which says it contributes 7% of India’s GDP. Is this why the government has dropped the idea of an Electric Vehicle policy? The Clean Air programme needs to say how it will tackle vehicular pollution more than what’s being done currently and how it will work with the all-important auto sector.s

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