There’s Something in the Air Tonight

Indian cities are getting more and more polluted because we are using less natural gas and more dirty fuel. It should be the other way around.

The Indian capital Delhi was one of the greenest cities  during the seventies. In 2010 it  entered the list of the top 10 polluted cities of the world. The Supreme Court  of India asked for an explanation, and the Delhi Government, then headed by Sheila Dixit, pleaded inability to monitor the situation citing lack of pollution-measuring equipment.

Air pollution dogs Indian cities since 2010

Following a hue and cry, Delhi installed six state-of-the-art air pollution monitoring stations that year. Two years later Delhi hit the headlines again, this time as the most polluted city of the world. An acrid smog hung over the capital city for weeks. According to the US embassy, air in the  nation’s capital reached PM2.5 concentrations of 1080 micrograms per cubic meter on November 8, 2012.  This was forty times the acceptable limits prescribed by WHO. The United Airlines discontinued  its flights to Delhi and several embassies issued advisories.  Responding to the outcry, Dixit said: “It’s an epicenter of trade, of commerce, of governance for this entire northern area. As a consequence, Delhi bears a much bigger burden.”

The problem of bad air that year was not restricted to Delhi alone. Eleven out of the top fifteen most polluted cities of the world that year were from India. This was unprecedented as India had displaced the more industrialized China as the most polluted nation on the earth. The courts, Governments and the Central Pollution Control Board had no answers. But the NASA Suomi NPP satellite came to the rescue. It captured images of crop fire smoke in Pakistan and northern India creating a haze during the winter months. But that did not still explain why cities like Patna and Gaya, Varanasi or Jodhpur were in the list.

Nonetheless the courts and the Government machinery went into overdrive, and the next year saw just two Indian cities in the WHO most polluted list. By 2014 the Governments in the centre and state had changed. But the pollution problems refused to subside. In 2015 five Indian cities–Muzaffarpur, Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, Kanpur and Lucknow–were in the list, and in 2016 all ten most polluted cities in the WHO list were from India. Kanpur and Faridabad topped the table with an annual average concentration of 173 micrograms per cubic meter. Interestingly all ten cities were industrial towns of northern India, and half of them were  from Uttar Pradesh.

India’s cautious approach versus China’s all out action

In November 2016 the CPCB in response to a Supreme Court directive prepared a Graded Action Plan to reduce air pollution in Delhi NCR. There was no plan for the other cities. The approach was cautious and defensive. It was not to eliminate pollution sources, but only to temporarily ward off emergencies. The GRAP was a graded action plan that would come into action only when the Air Quality Index was breached and the air deteriorated to poor, very poor or severe levels.

The  GRAP essentially was a very complex and elaborate firefighting operation. It would involve monitoring and reducing crop burning that involved the states of Punjab, Haryana and western UP, an area spread over 150,000 square kilometers. It involved reducing dust pollution, an equally difficult task in a hot, dusty, sprawling subcontinent where most roads had unpaved sidewalks . It needed reduction of construction dust, which would involve monitoring four thousand five hundred locations in four states, parts of which formed the NCR region of the capital city. It needed reduction of vehicles in a city that was bursting at the seams but with an woefully inadequate fleet of public transport and no political will to set right the malaise. Further it involved monitoring of thousands of industrial units that were creating air pollution tucked up in the dozens of industrial and residential areas of the megapolis.

Importantly the GRAP was to be monitored by no less than 16 Government agencies. It needed action by over  a dozen municipal corporations in the four states. It involved the traffic police, the city police and the pollution departments of the states, and several other statutory bodies that had no enforcement mechanism. So not only was the GRAP a localized response for NCR with too many goals, it had too many monitoring agencies inside and outside the Delhi NCR. So  there was every opportunity for the agencies concerned to pass the buck in event of failure.

In 2015 China dominated the list of the most polluted cities in the world. 27 Chinese cities were among the 50 most polluted city list issued by WHO, including Beijing, Shandong, Hebei and Henan. Premier Li Keqiang declared a war on pollution. In an unprecedented move, China, which did not permit public discussion on pollution not so long ago, decided to involve citizens body in monitoring. Beijing along with Paris had implemented GRAP, but only as a temporary measure. Now China went full steam ahead in monitoring air quality and clamping down on dirty fuel in a bid to eliminate bad air from all its 330 cities.

This was easier said than done because China was bigger and more coal dependent than India. China went ahead and installed real time continuous ambient air quality monitoring stations in hundreds with typical Chinese speed and rigor. Then it identified the two biggest sources of pollution as Coal and Petroleum Coke, a high sulphur petroleum distillate. Petcoke, a cheap bottom of the barrel crude, is one of the dirtiest fuels on the planet with 750,000 particles per million of PM2.5 concentration–over ten times more dirty than the worst quality coal.

Once the measuring devices were in place, China forced thousands of homes and industries to switch over from dirty fossil fuels to natural gas. This was not easy as China is a cold country with coal boilers heating thousands of homes and industries. Besides producing over 50% of the world’s aluminum and cement (ten times more than India ) the switch over from high sulfur  petcoke to natural gas was expensive and cumbersome. But the Chinese resolve and implementation was exemplary,  and so was the result. By 2016 China did not have even one name in the top ten and less than ten cities in the top 50 most polluted cities of the world.

India’s increased dependence on dirty fuel

Over the last five year’s India has  increasingly become more dependent on dirty fuels. CIL produces 85% of India’s coal. CIL Coal production in India has increased from 431.32 million in 2010 to 559.46 million metric tons as India in the year ending March 2017, as it strives to provide electricity to its citizens. The coal production rise in the last three years has been more than 10% on YOY basis. The total coal production was up at 662.79 MMT and most of it was the high sulfur variety of unwashed coal used for power generation.

The production of Petroleum Coke rose from 2.7  MMT in the year 2010-2011 to 13.9  MMT in the year 2016-17 as per the the oil ministry data.

On the other hand the production of natural gas declined sharply from 52,219 MMSCM in 2010-11 to  31,897 MMSCM in 2016-17. Not only did India sharply raise its domestic production of petcoke, but also increased its imports. Petcoke imports that had dropped following the pollution scare of 2012 suddenly started raising its ugly head. Imports doubled to 5.81 MMT in 2014-15 and galloped to 11.13 MMT by 2016-17.

When all over the world the use of natural gas was being encouraged, India started consuming less natural gas. Even the capital city reeling under smog failed to switch over to natural gas. This despite its ambitious IPGCL power project of gas turbines of 270 MW at Pagati Maidan and 1500 MW at Bawana, which functions intermittently due to inadequate supply of natural gas by GAIL

India’s reluctance to produce or consume natural gas is not because of its inability,  but more due to its bureaucratic indifference towards environmental pollution. Unless our approach to pollution management changes, there is little chance of long-term change, and we will struggle to clean up our air.

About the author

Sandip Sen

Sandip Sen is an author and journalist who writes for several national dailies and think tanks. He also appears in TV discussions on economy and environment Apart from journalism, he has thirty years of industry experience. He is the Author of the book 'Neta, Babu and Subsidy : Economic Roundup 2000 to 2014.'