India stumped in efforts to clear toxic smog as cricketers throw up

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s state-run NTPC is launching bids for clean technology for two coal-fired power plants near New Delhi, officials said, as criticism mounts over the country’s failure to end a toxic smog which strikes the capital every winter.

Vehicles drive through smog in New Delhi, India, December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Saumya Khandelwal

But environment activists said the measures were too little and too late.

Illegal crop burning in farm states surrounding New Delhi, vehicle exhaust in a city with limited public transport, industrial emissions and swirling construction dust have caused the crisis, sparking a public health crisis.

On Tuesday, two cricketers threw up on the field during an India-Sri Lanka Test match as a toxic haze blanketed the stadium and Sri Lanka, whose players wore masks, said it had complained to the International Cricket Council.

There is also concern about an Indian Super League soccer game on Wednesday night where players may have to wear masks, one of the team coaches said.

A task force headed by a top aide to Prime Minister Narendra Modi is driving a set of measures aimed at reducing pollution by next winter, a government source involved in the efforts said.

Besides the $215 million plan to clean up sulfur emissions from the Dadri and Jhajjar power plants, the task force has ordered the opening up of an expressway skirting the capital that will ensure trucks don’t have to transit the city.

Vehicle emissions account for 30 percent of Delhi’s pollutants topped by PM 2.5, or tiny particles that lodge deep in the lungs causing respiratory and other diseases. More than 50,000 lorries pour into the city each night.

The government is also considering a plan to give farmers subsidies to buy machines that clear crop waste so that they don’t have to burn the stubble.

“The prime minister has directed that air quality should improve by next winter so that we are not in this crisis situation again,” the government source said. “Eventually the plan is to improve to the level of cities in the developed world.”

Sunil Dahiya, senior campaigner Greenpeace India, said coal-based power plants - most of which are state-owned - had been given two years to control emissions by this month, but nothing had happened.

“The bigger hindrance to clean up the air in India is lack of political will,” he said. The 135-km eastern expressway which the government is hoping will free up traffic was meant be completed in April, then moved to August and is now planned for completion by late next year.

On Wednesday, the air quality reading for an area in the vicinity of the stadium where the football game will be played had risen to 204 by noon, way above the safe limit of 50, according to a US embassy measurement.

Steve Coppell, a former Manchester United player who is coaching the Jamshedpur FC team in the game against Delhi Dynamos, said that matches should not be held in Delhi at this time of the year.

“It’s not for sportsmen to say, it is a decision the health officials will have to make. If you ask me, if I want to play in these conditions, I would say ‘I don’t think so’.”

Additional reporting by Amlan Chakraborty and Neha Dasgupta in NEW DELHI and Sihar Aneez in COLOMBO; Editing by Nick Macfie