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Saturday Interview | ‘Smog-towers will not help’

Vivek Chattopadhyaya, associated with the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, is an expert on clean air and sustainable mobility management.

Syed Hashim Najmi | New Delhi |

Vivek Chattopadhyaya, associated with the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, is an expert on clean air and sustainable mobility management.

He has been closely involved in public campaigns, advocating the right to clean air. He has also been working on programmes aimed at improving the decision-making process related to air quality planning and mobility management as well as raising public awareness in cities.

In an interview with SYED HASHIM NAJMI, he discusses, among other things, how the pollution crisis and the stubble burning issue in Delhi every year could be addressed.

Q: The pollution level in Delhi goes up alarmingly with the onset of winter every year because of the rise in stubble burning in neighbouring states – Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan. The Delhi government has appealed to the Centre to tell neighbouring states to persuade farmers to use the Pusa Institute-developed bio-decomposer to effectively handle the paddy stubble problem instead of burning it. How do you see the Delhi government’s proposal?

A: Since the bio-decomposer method has been approved by scientific and agricultural research institutions and it is an in-situ solution for crop residue management, states must implement it.

However, farmers should also be properly trained for this so that its effectiveness is not compromised on the ground. Similarly, other crop residue management measures which are also supported by governments must be scaled up by providing support, considering availability and affordability. Since the scale of implementation is large, a special task force should monitor the implementation of all measures.

Q. What should be done to force states to use the bio-decomposer to dispose of the paddy stubble?

A: The solution to this problem has to be multi-pronged with an insitu approach (such as decomposing, use of agricultural machines and equipment and straw management system) and an ex-situ method (using it as pallets, fuels in boilers, industries, etc).

Since the scale of the area to be covered is huge with differing ground situations, a basket of solutions should be implemented. The strategy should be constantly evaluated for effectiveness, handling the problems faced in implementation and results.

So, if the bio-decomposer turns out to be most cost-effective, environment-friendly, scalable and affordable, such in-situ management solutions should be promoted in a big way. But, at the same time, crop diversification should also be promoted because we know that in the water-scarce areas paddy cultivation poses several other environmental challenges.

So, a comprehensive approach can work with grassroots involvement and hand-holding support for multiple applicable solutions.

Q: Is there any other method to effectively handle the stubble burning issue?

A: As mentioned above, there are several in-situ and ex-situ methods that have been identified. The question is how to scale their implementation, make it affordable for farmers so that they do not resort to burning.

The PM Task Force, the Niti Aayog, the Ministry of Agriculture and state initiatives have identified such solutions, but constant supervision, guidance and learning from the groundlevel situation is needed to implement all the solutions as per our needs.

The preparations should start with the beginning of the cropping season so that it does not become a fire-fighting situation every year.

Q: The Delhi government has claimed that the two smog-towers set up in the city – one at Connaught Place and the other at Anand Vihar have been found to be effective in purifying polluted air. The government, therefore, says that installing more smog-towers in various parts of Delhi can lead to the pollution problem getting under control. But experts questioned the Delhi government’s claim soon after the first smog-tower came up.What are your views about smog-towers?

A: Air purification works in closed areas, but in open areas there is wind velocity and the volume of air constantly changes. Reducing a tiny fraction of outdoor pollutants will require hundreds of such towers, still they will not be successful because once a pollutant gets emitted from a source, it is in the concentrated form.

But once it is in ambient air, it gets diluted. So, it is economically and technically prudent to install pollution-control devices at sources rather than trying to capture pollutants from the air. Such towers will be energy-intensive and wasteful of resources. Also, no country in the world has cleaned up its air with air purification systems.

It is always tighter regulations, effective implementation, cleaner fuels and technologies and effective monitoring that help in reducing air pollution. Therefore, the government should rather invest in clean technologies and solutions (improve public transport systems with clean technologies, waste collection, segregation and recycling and reuse strategy, tightening emissions of power plants and industries, enhancing renewable energy supply, etc) that will provide long-term benefits.

Q: Besides the smoke generated by stubble burning, vehicle emissions are a major source of air pollution in Delhi. The Delhi government is trying to handle the vehicular pollution problem through its policy of promoting the use of electric vehicles and banning the use of older vehicles.Will these measures help?

A: Vehicles emit higher in congestion and during idling situations compared to optimal driving speeds. For instance, during idling it is wasteful fuel consumption and there is also an increase in emissions.

Whenever engines are turned off when traffic lights are on, it will help reduce emissions and protect people from exposure to emissions caused by vehicles in an idling condition. It is a small but effective effort and it should be implemented irrespective of seasons.

And for this, traffic light timers should be installed across the city at  intersections so that vehicle drivers are aware of them. In fact, in other countries there are regulations that we cannot idle-run vehicles near schools as this causes emissions harmful to people.

Therefore, in all pollution control strategies, several kinds of efforts have to be made. But at the same time, governments should substantially improve public transport connectivity, last-mile connectivity, so that vehicle numbers can also be reduced and, at the same time, mobility options are provided to people.

Q: Is banning older vehicles which are in good condition a justifiable step? What do you say about allowing the use of vehicles which are in good condition and for which a fitness certificate can be obtained?

A: At present, private vehicles do not undergo roadworthiness checks annually but this should be done in India. Driving unfit vehicles which fail roadworthiness and emission tests is a major problem in cities, and unfit vehicles can be found in all age groups.

So, the criteria should be based on fitness and enhanced emission checking systems but, at the same time, we need to replace the older fleet of Bharat Stage norm-compliant vehicles (pre- BS norm, BS-I, BS-II) because they were designed to meet older emission norms which were much lenient (emissions compared to new vehicles can be 10-30 times higher).

Gradually, we have to move to new emission norm compliant vehicles with a view to reducing total vehicular emissions. Therefore, the vehicle scrapping programme should consider all these aspects for renewal of the fleet. Similar efforts are needed for commercial vehicles too.

Q: Some people argue that those who do not have proper parking arrangements should not be allowed to purchase vehicles in Delhi. This too will help in reducing pollution. What is your view?

A: The city is choked with cars, and private vehicles particularly are parked almost 98 per cent of the time either at home, office or in commercial areas. The demand is so high that most streets get choked and since many parts of the city are not designed to cater to high numbers of parked vehicles or do not have spaces left – the public spaces like roads and footpaths get encroached upon for the parking of vehicles.

Therefore, seeking proof of parking space is also an effective strategy to solve these issues so that parked vehicles do not eat away public spaces. Also, parking area-wise management policies should be implemented to promote shared parking wherever possible.

The parking policy should be oriented towards demand management rather than keep on supplying more and more parking spaces. Rather public transport connectivity, walking, cycling and last-mile connectivity modes should be promoted.