The Union environment ministry continues to treat the current air pollution crisis in Delhi and the national capital region (NCR) as a seasonal emergency rather than the national public health crisis that experts say it is.
“On account of pollution control measures and slight improvement in weather conditions, the declining trend in PM levels which started in the afternoon of November 12 continues even today,” Environment minister Harsh Vardhan, said on Tuesday, “Delhi and NCR have now moved from emergency level to severe category of PM levels.”
This week he suggested in an interview that the Bhopal Gas tragedy qualified as an emergency but not the smog in Delhi. “...there is no need to spread panic among the people,” was the minister’s advice.
According to a recent report in the Lancet medical journal, air pollution claimed almost 1.81 million lives in India in 2015.
“All of north India cannot breathe,” Sunita Narain, director general of Centre for Science and Environment, said of the current pollution episode.
Data from Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) shows that for most cities in UP, Punjab and Haryana air pollution levels in terms of PM2.5 were comparable to Delhi last week. The data is skewed because Delhi has more monitoring stations than all three states combined.
Though the whole of north India was reeling under the impact of air pollution, the environment ministry continued to focus narrowly on Delhi-NCR.
“The biggest problem is that the centre doesn’t consider this a crisis,” Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer, said.
The Centre’s dismissal of air pollution-related health statistics has been widely criticised. “Unfortunately the official reaction seems to be to discredit the numbers. That’s not something we should spend too much time on,” former environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, said Tuesday in Delhi at a conference on the impact of air pollution.
Even as the centre grapples for an appropriate response, the blame game among three states over who is responsible for the poor air quality in the NCR continued.
In response to calls for the Centre’s intervention, the ministry called meetings inviting high-level officials from the affected states. However, instead of directing them to implement measures to tackle pollution, it has been requesting them to do their job.
According to Dutta under Section 5 of the Environmental Protection Act, the Centre has the power to issue directions. “The Centre has to play a direct role here,” he said.
Environmentalists also called for the ministry to implement the emission norms they have laid down, penalise defaulters, especially the industry, ensure that agencies like the pollution control boards are properly staff and implement orders of the apex green tribunal in the country.
“The Centre has to move on two things: move towards clean fuel, and that cannot be done by the states. It includes banning the imports of petcoke, severely restrict the use of furnace oil across the country and making sure gas is available for industry and power plants,” Narain said.
“We have two doctors are in charge of the environment ministry yet this is what is happening,” Dutta said of Harsh Vardhan and Mahesh Sharma, who recently became the junior minister in the environment ministry.