Still The City Of Smog

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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

On 5 October, a Supreme Court bench comprising Chief Justice of India (CJI) HL Dattu and Justices Arun Mishra and Adarsh Kumar Goel expressed concern over the national capital’s acute air pollution problem. Hearing an application moved by amicus curiae Harish Salve on levying surcharge to trucks entering the city, Dattu reportedly stated how his “own grandson wears a mask” to school.

Urging the government to take cognisance of the rising pollution levels, the CJI also asked the Delhi government to consider the suggestion of levying the surcharge. “Delhi’s climate has changed a lot over the past 50 years and we are already quite late in taking any safety measures,” says Anumita Roychowdhury, research and advocacy head (air pollution) at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). “Yet, the court’s move is a welcome one. However, it will be in vain if there are no additional measures to curb the pollution caused by the plying of trucks and other outbound diesel vehicles through Delhi. Numbering nearly 1.15 lakh, these contribute a 30 percent share of the total pollution.”

According to a recent CSE study, trucks that travel through the capital cause almost one-third of the particulate matter pollution and 22 percent of the nitrogen oxide pollution in Delhi. The study also revealed that the number of trucks entering Delhi was higher than the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) figures. A 24×7 video recording of nine key entry points done by CSE showed that the number of trucks entering through those entry points was 71 percent more than what the MCD claimed.

“The fact that two proposed express highway projects got delayed is also additional reason to have checks on these vehicles for age and emissions,” read the report. “There is also the option of providing them with an alternate cheaper route, the tax from which could then be used to the benefit of public transports. Even though the discussion is now on the trucks and outbound diesel vehicles, it could in the next phase be taken to consider other vehicles as well. Controlling pollution will need drastic steps, therefore a well laid plan will be necessary before acting them out.”

While Delhi’s own vehicles cause 62 percent of the particulate pollution and 68 percent of the nitrogen oxide pollution, any means to ensure that the trucks do not use the city for transit could result in a sharp decease in the level of pollution. However, truck driver Sushil Kumar, a native of Haryana, who regularly makes his daily trip from Haryana to Delhi and back, disagrees. “Ideally, this tax must be levied from the owner of the truck,” he says. “Most of the time this does not happen since the owners tell us that they would reimburse the amount later. So the burden of paying these taxes in addition to the rent falls upon us. Who will pay for this? The government or the company? If the motive is to decrease air pollution, why must we bear the brunt first? How will someone like me who earns Rs 10,000- Rs 12,000 a month live?”

The metropolis of Delhi is famous for its two extremes: its scathing heat and its biting cold. Therefore, the first set of instructions that assail the tourist who visits Delhi are almost always about the weather. Pack enough warm clothes and cover your face if you are going to visit Delhi in November. Or do not go out during the day if you want to evade the wrath of the sun. Not in the months of June-July at least. “We used to look forward to the winter because it was the best time to be in Delhi,” says Bittoo Singh, a property dealer in Chunamandi, Paharganj. “I have lived in Delhi for more than 40 years now. And since the past few years I have been suffering from chronic asthma. When I see the weather now, I am not even sure what is worse: is it the summer or the winter?”

In September, when a team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, ranked the mega cities of the world according to the number of premature deaths expected due to air pollution over the next 10 years, it came as no surprise that Delhi topped the list with honours. Add to this the staggering rise of respiratory illnesses in India. India’s National Health Profile 2015 reported 3.5 million cases of acute respiratory infection last year. In Delhi alone, according to several media reports, at least 3,000 patients were admitted to respiratory disease wards in various hospitals.

“I agree that the trucks cause pollution and affect the health of the people,” says Kumar. “But now, if they force us to pay pollution tax, we would have to find other ways to save the money that we earn. We might end up using more kerosene as fuel.”

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