#18 cities
Rahul Kumar

Fancy Schemes for a Dirty Business

Delhi's government struggles to find sustainable solutions that stop the pollution of air, water and land. Inconsistent authorities relied on shiny schemes that did not restore the city's rich natural features. Instead of cleaning up the river, they only washed money down the drain.

“Delhi: The World’s Most Polluted City in Air Quality”, “Bengaluru: Chemicals in Lakes Catch Fire” and “Chennai: Floods are a Failure of Governance”

Such headlines have dominated the Indian media space for a while now, as the world woke up to glorious news this past New Year: India's capital city Delhi planned to implement the odd-even scheme that allows people to operate their cars only on days that correspond to their number plates. For the pampered Delhiite, it came out of the blue and left them shocked and surprised. Still the experiment that began on January 1st, 2016 and lasted a fortnight was accepted without too many complaints by residents, and the Delhi government immediately labelled it a massive success. Air pollution dipped and congestion on Delhi's clogged roads was visibly reduced.

…there is no disagreement on the fact that Delhi has to rid itself of pollution.

The scheme was reintroduced for a fortnight in April. This time, however, there was serious disagreement about its benefits and strong reactions from people. However, putting the scheme's failure aside for a moment, there is no disagreement on the fact that Delhi has to rid itself of pollution. The government has to find ways that go beyond the odd-even scheme.

So what led the government to think of and implement such a measure?

At some point in 2014, the smug city was rudely awakened by the news that the global hotspot of air pollution had shifted from Beijing to Delhi. To add insult to injury, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that 13 of the top 20 cities with the foulest air across the planet are in India. This news led to considerable soul searching and the implementation of the odd-even scheme. Additionally the government also introduced the voluntary Car Free Day on the 22nd of every month, which has not gained traction except among those who organise cycle rides on that day.

Indian metropolises are gaining notoriety for their pollution levels. The latest awful news to trickle in is that India's financial capital Mumbai has been declared the noisiest city in the world, while Delhi ranks number four. Obviously, something is wrong with Indian metropolises. But back to Delhi and its tragic fate.

…the ignominy of being listed as the world's most polluted city, even though it is blessed with urban forests…

Blessed with rich natural features, Delhi is sandwiched between the Yamuna River and the oldest mountain chain in the world, the Aravallis. The former is a mighty body of water and the latter is endowed with a thick green cover and a rich variety of wildlife. Despite being so well endowed with natural bounty, the Indian capital bears the ignominy of being listed as the world's most polluted city, even though it is blessed with urban forests – patches of natural green untouched by human intervention.

Bharati Chaturvedi, the founder and director of the Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group and who has campaigned for environmental issues for nearly two decades, says that Delhi’s air is contaminated in part due to poor transport planning. Chaturvedi says, “the city needs more buses, better organised and reliable, safe public transport.” She adds that Delhi should have a coordinating committee for all projects that require digging and construction beyond a certain limit, as haphazard construction and demolitions account for a lot of the air pollution.

In addition to broader solutions, smaller interventions must be added to successfully improve the poor air quality. Naturalist Vijay Dhasmana, who works on revitalising the fragile ecology of the Aravallis, says that measures like preventing the burning of crop residues after the harvest and removing diesel generators will also make a big difference. He adds that Delhi will also have to coordinate with neighbouring states to negotiate a regional protocol for air quality control.

Every aspect of Delhi's environment is under threat.

However, the air in Delhi is not the only thing at risk. Every aspect of Delhi's environment is under threat. In addition to air pollution, both Chaturvedi and Dhasmana list the pollution and depletion of water and its sources as the city's other major environmental concern.

It is not as if the government has been oblivious to the environmental concerns plaguing the city. For more than two decades, the city and various civic agencies have been trying to get the environment back on track. Nearly 15 years ago, the government started an ambitious plan to clean up the Yumana River. Sewage treatment plants (STPs) and effluent treatment plants (ETPs) were built to ensure that all the waste water that flowed into the river was treated. Despite monstrous amounts of money invested in them, the STPs and the ETPs did not work. Domestic sewage and industrial waste water continued to flow into the river untreated.

Chaturvedi says that the Yamuna should be treated as an ecosystem and the city’s sewage system should be decentralised, a measure also likely to prove less expensive. She also wants the government to provide subsidies to encourage water harvesting in buildings.

Every so often, a government scheme does actually work. There was a time when the city’s civic agencies used to encourage the reclamation of ponds. However, with the groundwater level falling faster than it can be replenished, the practice was discontinued.

Dhasmana has more solutions to offer the thirsty city – ensure strict rainwater harvesting efforts, create more bodies of water, prevent contaminants from leaching into the groundwater, and halt the exploitation of groundwater to keep the water table from being depleted.

So, imagine nearly 3,000 elephants of waste marching into Delhi's landfills every day…

Air, water and land. Every aspect of Delhi is under assault from unsustainable practices and inadequate governance. One only has to visit villages on the outskirts of Delhi to see the landfills that are now mountains of solid waste with almost 8,360 tonnes of additional garbage piling up every day. Even more rubbish that never makes it to the landfills is generated daily. An Indian elephant weighs 2.5 - 5 tonnes. So, imagine nearly 3,000 elephants of waste marching into Delhi's landfills every day – a clear indicator of the culture of conspicuous consumption and spending by Delhi's rich.

Chaturvedi says a big part of the solution lies in involving more waste pickers to collect the garbage and let the dry waste go for recycling. She wants doorstep collection of garbage for more residential areas and expects residents to pitch in by learning to separate their waste. Her other priorities include making production companies accountable for menstrual waste and hazardous waste such as batteries. The current legislation on waste management makes no special provisions for these areas. Besides better waste management, Dhasmana feels it is time the government start thinking of a policy that will stop waste production.

... decades of efforts, tonnes of money, loads of engineering and smart solutions…

Delhi’s pollution problems are acutely visible, and solutions have been half-heartedly discussed for decades. Somewhat surprisingly, despite decades of efforts, tonnes of money, loads of engineering and smart solutions, the government and civic agencies have not been able to arrest the degradation of environment.

One reason could be global influence on the Indian economy and politics. Indian politicians have insulated themselves from public opinion and public problems. Government offices have become increasingly inaccessible to the people, and even the media, compared to a decade ago.

…high-cost engineering solutions that tend to benefit companies more than the city or its people.

At the same time, many decisions related to the civic and environmental management of the city are high-cost engineering solutions that tend to benefit companies more than the city or its people. Inefficient STPs and ETPs unable to cope with the pollution load of waste water, or which allow waste water to flow through untreated during power cuts, are one such example. There was another experiment with a Danish waste-to-energy plant that never produced energy as the waste was too “poor quality” with no calorific value. Instead of learning from this debacle, Delhi is once again experimenting with a private sector waste-to-energy plant that burns waste to generate energy. Situated right in the middle of a bustling residential area, this plant produces energy, but also pumps a lot of toxins into the air.

Many of the environmental problems that have plagued Delhi over the past decades have a lot to do with indifferent governance, lack of facilities, and public apathy. In addition to governance failures, the lack of public cooperation, as seen in the failure of the Car Free Day initiative, shows that restoring the falling environmental health of the India's powerhouse will be a long haul. The odd-even scheme has been partly successful because it has the force of the traffic police and the fear of fines behind it, while the voluntary Car Free Day has been a tremendous failure since it is not backed by anything particularly persuasive.

There is some good news for Delhiites, though. Just a few weeks back, the city was downgraded by the WHO from number one to the eleventh in the latest urban air quality database – partly because of reduced pollution levels and partly because new cities with higher pollution loads have emerged on the horizon.

Photos by Rahul Kumar.

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