Prof. T K Thomas

Prof. T K Thomas

If I go for a morning stroll and walk to the left, in around 300 meters there is an East Delhi Municipal Corporation [EDMC] garbage dump. And if the stroll is to the right for about 400 meters, there is a similar dump. Both these are sandwiched between rather posh apartment complexes. What is common about these is that both of them have absolutely dirty peripherals and have unbearable foul stink, obviously emitting obnoxious toxic gases; whether the dump is cleared by the municipal truck or not the stench and stink force passersby to cover their nose.

Last week, NDTV reported that, “Delhi is the most polluted city in the world with an Air Quality Index [AQI] reading of 527, according to a report by private weather forecasting agency Skymet….The alarming revelations came barely two weeks after a real-time air quality ranking report by the IQ Air Visual also called the national capital “the world’s most polluted city”.

The apathy of our leaders and bureaucrats for such an emergency of the people of Delhi exposed to extremely poisonous air was evident last Friday when the Parliamentary Committee of 29 MPs had to be postponed as only four of the members attended the meeting. Prominent among the absentees was former cricketer Gautam Gambhir, the only Lok Sabha MP from Delhi who was busy as a commentator in Indore for the first test between India and Bangladesh. The bureaucrats including the Municipal Commissioners and representatives from the Delhi Development Authority [DDA], busy elsewhere, were conspicuous by their absence from this critical special Parliamentary Committee meeting meant to deliberate on the worst ever air emergency in the National Capital. Of course the political class does indulge in blaming each other and seemingly has not come out with any tangible actions.

The situation is indeed grim as our children are gasping for breath and are exposed to deadly poisonous gases. Schools were closed and children were confined indoors. Of course, thousands of homeless and street children were exposed to the deadly air. The story was not different in the adjoining states of Delhi which did not get as much media coverage as Delhi. The Delhi children did protest by demonstrating on roads with slogans and placards demanding immediate action by the authorities.

The present discourse on pollution in Delhi and elsewhere is focused on air pollution caused by exhaust fumes from the vehicles. So, the Delhi government introduced the odd - even scheme last year and again during the first fortnight of this month for private cars, some of the opposition parties and some experts pointed out that the odd-even scheme was an exercise in futility.

Earlier diesel vehicles were blamed for pollution and we in Delhi had earnestly hoped that CNG, which was introduced some years back would solve the problem to some extent. But still vehicular pollution continues to persist. Electric rickshaws did offer some respite but cars and other vehicles run on electricity are yet to be produced in bulk and presently it is understood that they are too expensive. How far cancelling the license of 15 or more years old vehicles has been implemented is also unclear.

Fumes from factories, indiscriminate burning of plastic and other bio-non-degradable materials, smoke belching power generation plants using fossil fuels add to the problem of smoke and fumes. Mercifully, in the wake of increased atmospheric pollution by power plants, such plants in and around Delhi have been closed down. Then comes the alleged biggest problem of stubble burning by farmers in Delhi’s neighboring states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. The season of stubble burning by farmers after harvests, incidentally coincides with the onset of winter, the most vulnerable time for increased pollution in the city.

Remedial measures like odd-even scheme, closing down of some power plants, declaring holidays for schools, etc. appear to be band-aid solutions when there is a real health emergency. The dangerous impact of excessive pollution has far-reaching consequences as it can permanently damage lungs and the respiratory systems of the young and old alike. One does not perceive serious and permanent solutions being offered by any government. While the media has adopted an alarmist if not sensational approach, with honorable exceptions, there are no proper attempts to make people aware of the gravity of the situation and educate them about precautionary steps and how in their own individual capacities they could reduce pollution. The health professionals and public health institutions need to be more people centric and the state and central governments more proactive.

I wonder whether it is correct to put the entire blame on the farmers of the adjoining states for atmospheric pollution in Delhi. Farmers in the stubble burning states appear to be helpless and demand government support which are temporary solutions. In other parts of the country where manual harvesting is done, sickles leave very short stubbles which are ploughed out and recycled as manure or used as fodder. In states like Haryana and Punjab it is done with devices like combine harvesters which cut the plants leaving a very long stubble according to the level at which the cutting blades are placed. Is it not possible to innovate and reduce this level of the blade to facilitate cutting the stubble as short as possible? That could be a permanent solution to avoid stubble burning.

Isn’t the solid waste generated by the residents of the metropolis equally responsible for atmospheric-pollution? The aforesaid two municipal garbage dumps under the East Delhi Municipal Corporation are among the thousands and thousands of such garbage dumps in the other Municipal Corporations in North and South Delhi which actually add to the city’s pollution.

The quantum of solid waste produced by the people of Delhi is estimated to be a whopping 10,000 metric tons. Out of this 9500 tons of garbage per day is generated. There are an estimated 20,000 civic workers to collect this garbage and dump them in the dumping locations. [ source: www. downtoearth.org]. The final destinations of the garbage are the sprawling and mountain like landfills in Ghazipur in East Delhi. Okhla in South Delhi and Bhalswa in North –West Delhi. These landfills by emitting toxic fumes and foul smell are also major sources of pollution. Unless there are more facilities for recycling of the solid waste including deadly plastic and e-waste, these landfills will continue to be scars on the city’s landscape and a permanent sources of pollution.

One feels that ultimately lack of civic sense and irresponsible disposal of garbage by the denizens of our cities are primarily responsible for the mounting solid waste problem. Travel anywhere by road, by evening we would find all the roads and bylines littered with trash thrown around carelessly. Even if there are municipal dust bins, they are not generally used. Go for a walk in the morning through the residential areas of Delhi, a common sight is affluent residents walking their exotic breeds of dogs, using the public roads as a toilet for their pets! On the other hand in developed countries those who walk their dogs on the roads carry a trash cans and scoopers to instantly remove the dog excreta! Thanks to our habit of chewing “paan”, it is almost a national pastime to spit on the roads, adding yet another health hazard. Haven’t you noticed the red spit marks on the staircases of public buildings?

In the beginning of 2017, when East Delhi civic sanitation workers went on strike for non- payment of wages it was a public health emergency. For days, trash had accumulated and spilled over to the roads causing unbearable stink to the residents nearby. Do we actually care for the great service that sanitation workers render? Aren’t they victims of respiratory problems when they sweep our dusty roads and kick up dust adding to the overall pollution of our cities? I find that most of them do not cover their faces with masks or even a small towel.

Isn’t the callous attitude of the people at large in not caring for the environment and disposing of solid waste largely responsible for pollution? Don’t we use dangerous plastic bags for convenience and throw them around carelessly. In Bengaluru there are separate dust bins provided by the civic authorities for degradable and non-degradable domestic waste. In a very large multi-storied apartment block one had seen those who collect the solid waste from apartments warning the residents if they do not deposit the two types of waste in the designated bins. But in Delhi no one seems to care!

It is heartening that after the introduction of the “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan”, besides an overall improvement in the standards of public sanitation and cleanliness, there are initiatives for the holistic improvement and beautification of the otherwise stinking landfills. The old landfill in Sarai Kale Khan area has already been transformed into a beautiful sprawling park by the South Delhi Municipal Corporation. It is named “Seven Wonders of the World” with replicas of Wonders from all over the world made of scraps from the old landfill.