The Centre on Wednesday (November 17) told the Supreme Court that the latter’s suggestion of work-from-home for government employees amid the rising air pollution levels in Delhi wouldn’t bear much results, and that carpooling would be a better alternative.
The Centre told the court that asking employees to work from home to cut down on vehicular pollution levels will have a limited impact as the number of vehicles used by central government employees in the Delhi-NCR region is negligible.
“In the recent past, several governmental functions were impacted due to COVID-19 pandemic for a substantially long period of time which entailed pan India ramifications,” the Centre said in an affidavit.
“On work-from-home for central government employees, we have said that work has already suffered due to COVID-19. The number of central government vehicles in Delhi-NCR is not too high. There are more cons than pros when it comes to WFH…it will have a limited impact. We have advised carpooling,” the Centre said.
The Supreme Court on Monday (November 15) had asked the Centre to consider work-from-home for employees for a week in view of the deteriorating air quality in the city.
After hearing versions from the Centre and the Delhi government, the Supreme Court had concluded that pollution by factories, transportation dust and stubble burning were some of the key factors that contributed to the national capital’s air pollution.
The court had censured the Delhi government for not taking enough initiatives to curb pollution levels and had asked the Centre and NCR-states to find immediate solution to bring pollution levels down.
During Wednesday’s hearing, the Punjab government told the apex court that it may need financial assistance to deal with the issue of stubble burning.
“All possible steps are being taken to control stubble burning but we’re facing financial limitations. We need financial assistance from the Centre to control stubble burning. We have been asking to provide cost compensation of ₹100 per quintal to the farmers over and above MSP to control stubble burning but to no avail,” the Punjab government told the court.
Why Delhi’s air turns toxic in winters?
Delhi witnesses a spike in pollution levels every winter due to a variety of reasons including a rise in pollutants, as well as weather and local conditions. A fall in temperature from October onwards is a major reason behind rising pollution levels, say experts. According to them, when the temperature dips, the inversion height –the layer beyond which pollutants cannot escape to the upper layer of the atmosphere – is lowered. An inversion also traps pollutants such as smog and dust particles, increasing the concentration of these pollutions in the air close to the ground. That apart, a dip in wind speed – which otherwise helps in dispersing pollutants – in the region during the winter months also makes the national capital and its vicinity victims to severe pollution. Dust storms, vehicular emissions, industrial pollution, construction activities, stubble burning and other factors aggravate the air quality further.
According to a study by Observer Research Foundation, while the average annual PM 2.5 concentration in India stood at 58.1 micrograms per cubic metre as of 2019, the same for Delhi was 98.6 micrograms per cubic metre, the highest for a capital not only in the country, but across the world. (PM 2.5 are suspended particles less than 2.5 micrometres)
What is Delhi’s current AQI?
A thick layer of smog engulfed Delhi as its pollution levels deteriorated on November 5, a day after Diwali, after residents burst crackers, flouting the government’s ban and emissions from farm fires from the neighbouring NCR region peaked at 36 per cent. The factors raised the national capital’s 24-hour average air quality index (AQI) on the day to 462, the highest in five years.
Since then, the air quality remained in the ‘severe’ zone for nearly a week with negligible improvements in between.
India Meteorological Department (IMD) on Wednesday said that the air pollution levels may deteriorate further due to a slump in wind speed and temperatures.
The air quality in the national capital after remaining in the very poor zone for two days has gone back to the severe zone.
According to data with Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) Delhi’s AQI stood at 403 (severe) on Tuesday (November 16), while it was 353 (very poor) on Monday (November 15).
Delhi on Tuesday also recorded a minimum temperature of 10 degrees Celsius, the lowest temperature dip in the season so far.
Scientists at IMD have said that wind will remain calm till November 18, causing temperatures to drop. This may make dispersion of pollutants difficult.
“Delhi’s air quality slipped again to the severe category last evening owing to a dip in wind speeds. Almost two-thirds of regulatory monitors in Delhi reported PM 2.5 levels higher than 250ug/m3, breaching the national standards of 60ug/m3. The city’s average PM 2.5 levels reached a maximum of 340ug/m3 at 10 am this morning,” Tanushree Ganguly, programme lead, Council of Energy, Environment and Water told the media on Wednesday.
“However, the PM2.5 levels started falling slightly given a marginal increase in wind speeds in the afternoon. But meteorology will continue to have a crucial impact on Delhi’s air quality in the coming days. Given the drop in temperatures, contribution from local biomass burning for warming needs might see an uptick,” he said.
Experts have said while the bursting of firecrackers during Diwali raised the AQI levels this month, the air quality further worsened due to the stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana.
Is stubble burning the culprit? or not…
Amid the hullabaloo on stubble burning being a prominent reason behind the toxic air in Delhi, the Centre, on Tuesday, told the Supreme Court that farm fires contribute to just 10 per cent of air pollution in Delhi.
Quoting a scientific study, the Centre in its affidavit said that farm fires only contribute to 4 per cent of Delhi’s PM 2.5 in winters and 7 per cent in summers.
This prompted the CJI NV Ramana-led bench to comment that the Delhi government has been “targeting something that is insignificant” and that the real culprits of air pollution are transport industries and vehicular traffic while stubble burning is just a minor contributor. The court, however, asked the Centre and NCR-states to check stubble burning in Haryana and Punjab.
The Delhi government, accused the Centre of making a U-turn in court as the government in its own emergency meeting had concluded that stubble burning contributes to at least 35-40 per cent of Delhi-NCR’s toxic air.
The Union Ministry of Earth Science’s air quality monitoring centre, System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research’s (Safar) said that the stubble fires in Punjab and Haryana are now declining after a peak.
Kejriwal govt on troubleshooting mode
The Arvind Kejriwal government on Sunday issued an anti-pollution notification which ordered curbs on construction work and demolition projects till November 17 while asking education institutions (except those conducting examinations) to shut down till November 20. The measures were announced a day before by Chief Minister Kejriwal.
As part of the initiative, government offices, corporations and autonomous bodies will also remain closed till November 17 while private offices have been asked to encourage employees to work from home to cut down on vehicular pollution.
The directions were issued under the Environment Protection Act, 1986.
The Centre, on the other hand, has suggested a three pronged strategy to the Supreme Court to bring pollution levels down – implement an odd-even vehicle scheme, ban entry of trucks and impose a strict lockdown in the Delhi-NCR region.