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UN emission pat, air-pollution frown for India

A girl wears a mask in New Delhi. File picture

Calcutta: Erik Solheim, head of the United Nations Environment Programme, has praised India's efforts at cutting its greenhouse gas emissions, which he said had earned it the status of "host country" for this year's World Environment Day celebrations on June 5.

He, however, suggested that India should have a strategy to counter the worsening air pollution in its cities. A recent World Health Organisation report ranked 14 Indian cities among the world's worst 15 in air pollution.

A "host" country is picked every year for the World Environment Day. It organises the UNEP's official event for the day, pushing a particular global campaign. This year's theme was "Beat Plastic Pollution".

Solheim spoke to The Telegraph during his India visit to attend the main World Environment Day programme in Delhi and several other events elsewhere in the country.

"India is definitely one of the global leaders in countering climate change, particularly for its contribution in the solar sector," he said.

He referred to India's role in building the International Solar Alliance in association with France, its effort to build the biggest solar plant in the world and the first fully solar-powered airport in Kochi.

When commissioned, the plant at Pavagada in Karnataka will produce 2,000MW of solar power, taking over the top spot from a Chinese facility.

Solheim, however, said India's government should have a strategy to counter air pollution from vehicles and the burning of agricultural waste. He also suggested a shift from coal-powered energy generation.

"There has to be a strategy for countering all the pollution sources.... Traffic is the main source of pollution in India, followed by the burning of agricultural waste around cities like Delhi, and the burning of coal," he said.

Solheim said one of the answers was to expand the metro railway system across the country and promote electrically run vehicles.

On the campaign against plastic pollution, he acknowledged "the issue has not been considered important earlier" and said the amount of plastic generated during the last decade was higher than anything seen before.

"There has never been a campaign like this before, and governments and businesses should come forward to take action, mobilise people. There should be recycling and innovation," he said."I came to know that Chile's parliament has banned plastic and the European Union is going to act against undesirable plastic."

A Delhi-based green activist said: "It's bizarre that while the Narendra Modi government is systematically diluting all the environment laws in the country, it is projecting itself as pro-environment globally by hosting the World Environment Day programme."

He cited the government's attempt to bring the National Green Tribunal under the environment ministry - foiled by a court case - and said this was an attempt to curb the tribunal's independence.

He also accused the government of diluting the forest act and proposing to water down the national clean-air programme and coastal management norms.

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