Book Excerpt: When Delhi’s Air Was Black With Smog — In 1996
In her book ‘Conflicts of Interest’, environmentalist Sunita Narain recounts the ‘black air’ in Delhi in 1996.
Every year, winter brings along with it a poisonous smog in Delhi — noxious fumes of pollutants which makes breathing hard, triggers respiratory diseases and sparks yet another debate on air pollution.
But has it always been like this? A look at the pollution crisis in Delhi in 1996 indicates yes.
In her book ‘Conflicts of Interest: My Journey through India’s Green Movement’, leading environmentalist Sunita Narain recounts the ‘black air’ in Delhi in 1996 and the struggle to get diesel particles to be recognized as air pollutants. Here’s an excerpt.
(Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House. Conflicts of Interest: My Journey through India’s Green Movement by Sunita Narain is available on Amazon. )
Listen to the except here:
A Cloud of Black Air Over Delhi
I remember the day as if it was yesterday. It was April 1999 and I was at my first press conference. It had been organised to tell the world that we had received a legal notice from Tata Motors for a whopping Rs 100 crore.
This was over an article that my late colleague Anil Agarwal and I had written, talking about toxins emitted by diesel vehicles that were dangerous to our health. Anil had fallen ill. He had asked me to handle the press. I was faced with what I can only describe as a hostile group — Tata was a respected business house; Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) was unknown at that time, while I was even lesser known.
My message was: Diesel vehicles emit fine particles. They were known then as PM 10 and are now known as PM 2.5 — simply because measuring devices have improved over the years. It has been shown conclusively that because of their small size, these particles can penetrate deep into our lungs and enter our bloodstream, leading to cardiac and respiratory problems.
The World Health Organization (WHO) had classified these particles as ‘likely carcinogen’ (since then, it has upgraded the threat to ‘carcinogen’).
Our conclusion was: Cars should not use diesel. Buses should shift to compressed natural gas (CNG), which emits much lower levels of PM 10 and PM 2.5. The government should rapidly and urgently clean up the quality of fuel and improve vehicle technologies.
At the press conference, our message to Tata Motors was clear: Take us to court. We will not back down from our campaign for clean air.
When I look back, I realise that the press conference was a turning point in our work. The room full of cynical faces looked at me with some amusement. But I had managed to convince some and intrigue others about the need to take air pollution seriously. Interestingly, the very next day, Tata Motors wrote to us saying that they were withdrawing their legal notice.
This was the time when Delhi’s air was foul, black and poisonous. My colleagues at the CSE had spent over a year trying to understand the cause of pollution in the city. The book that was an outcome of the research, ‘Slow Murder’, set the problem out in detail.
It found that there had been an explosion in the number of vehicles on the road — a phenomenon driven by the easy availability of the affordable Maruti cars. This, combined with the fact that there was absolutely no standard for the quality of fuel or limits on vehicle emissions, meant that the air of the national capital was toxic.
It was also a time when there was absolutely no awareness about the threat to human health from the air we breathe.
My recollection of that period is that we were screaming, but nobody was listening. Ironically, this was also when smoke was a sign of progress.
In 1996, the air in Delhi was black with smog. The difference between then and 2016— when the smog came back with a vengeance — was that Delhi did not know what had engulfed it.
It was breathing poison. Dirty air had crept upon it. But we were oblivious to all this. There was no information about air pollution and its hazards. We merely put it down to ‘dark winter days’. This is when the CSE began its work on air pollution. It was in November 1996 — now over 20 years ago — that we published ‘Slow Murder’, the deadly story of vehicular pollution in India.
The book started with the investigation into the pollution-under-control (PUC) system. It asked if Delhi or any city could clean up its air by checking the tailpipe emissions of each car.
Anil Agarwal, one of the authors of the book and our director, had given us a simple task: find out if PUC actually works. He called it ‘tailpipery’. He posed questions about what it would actually take to clean up Delhi’s air — in terms of vehicle technology, emission standards and fuel quality.
This was the first such inquiry and it brought results.
For the first time the CSE was not just doing research — we had decided that this was a fight to the finish. ‘Slow Murder’ would launch a campaign to fix what we had found was wrong with Delhi’s air. Remember, this was the time when air pollution was not being discussed much. It was not on anyone’s agenda yet.
In fact, we were asked more than once why we were so worried about some black air. The then lieutenant governor of Delhi said this was only dust, and nothing to be worried about. The then health minister said air pollution was not a health concern.
We deliberately called the book ‘Slow Murder’, as pollution did not kill instantly but instead led to the suppression of the body’s immune system, destroyed lung function or added to the cancer or cardiovascular disease burden — it was slow, but murder nevertheless. We indicted the government and industry.
We put three faces on the cover of our fortnightly, ‘Down to Earth’, 15 November 1996. They were of Jai Narain Prasad Nishad, then minister of environment and forests; TR Baalu, then minister of petroleum (there was no natural gas ministry); and Rahul Bajaj, the owner of Bajaj Motors, and at that time, India’s sole auto king.
Why? Because our research had indicted the three.
Proposals for vehicular standards were being shunted from one agency to another. This was a time when India had no Bharat Stage (BS) vehicle emission standards. We had absolutely no pollution control measures. The proposal for cleaner fuel was being similarly bandied about, without any resolution.
This was when fuel had 10,000 parts per million (ppm) or more of sulphur (today with BS-IV, sulphur is down to 50 ppm and this will go down to 10 ppm by 2020, when we hit BS-VI). Rahul Bajaj was on the cover of our magazine because of the extremely polluting two-stroke technology that two- and three-wheelers used.
Bajaj had a monopoly on vehicles at that time — this is before the advent of the four-stroke technology. The four-stroke technology saw the rise of Hero Honda and personal car mobility, which in turn saw the rise of Maruti Suzuki and all the other companies.
Our agenda was not personal. It was to bring about policies for fuel technology standards and to use this to drive out polluting vehicles. This is what we now call first-generation reform.
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