Delhi’s never-ending tryst with air pollution is in the news again, for the nth time. Air pollution today (7 November) has shot up to dangerously high levels, with the Air Quality Index (AQI) – used to forecast how polluted the air is – reaching 441 at 8 am today morning. By Indian standards, the number should not exceed 60.
The Indian Medical Association (IMA) declared the city in a public health emergency state and the union territory government (GNCTD) has asked for schools to remain shut.
Now, the important thing to remember is that it is still the beginning of winter and that Deepavali (also known as Diwali) is long gone. It has been almost three weeks since the end of the festivities, there are no reports of fireworks being burst in the National Capital Region (NCR), yet the pollution persists.
What does winter have to with it?
Cold air, is heavier than warm air, and due to the extremely low temperatures, cold air tends to be sandwiched between the ground and a layer of warmer air. Further, due to the presence of moisture in the air, pollutants are trapped in this layer of cold air and thus the thick smog.
But where do the pollutants come from? They can’t have stayed there for three weeks post the celebrations, assuming that crackers did add pollutants even after a ban on their sale in the National Capital Region! The culprit here is the same as last time - burning of crop stubble in Punjab.
The NASA Earth Observatory image (above) shows exactly what the problem is. The red dots over Punjab (between Bathinda and Jalandhar) are what NASA terms as ‘thermal anomalies’, or in simple terms - fires set in farm lands. The thick white smoke can be seen engulfing the entire of north India as well as eastern Pakistan.
It was earlier reported (October 2017) that Delhi’s air pollution levels have fallen by 40 per cent because the burning of crop stubble has been reduced following the Delhi High Court’s direction to Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan to strictly enforce a ban on the burning of paddy stubble. Yet, it is clear that what is still being burnt is generating pollution way beyond safety limits.
The effects of crop stubble being burnt have been well documented, with a survey pegging that approximately 84 per cent of people in the NCT face various health issues due to the smoke emanating from paddy stubble being burnt in Punjab and Haryana.
How do we solve the problem of paddy stubble being burnt?
One, find out why the paddy stubble is still being burnt. Identify the reasons why farmers still prefer to burn the stubble rather than transporting them to a power plant.
Two, make it more economical for farmers to transport the stubble. This can be done by opening more facilities to dispose of them, improving connectivity, and reducing overheads through minor subsidies or incentives.
Three, penalise farmers who burn the stubble. The Amarinder Singh government in Punjab needs to take this seriously as a bulk of the crop stubble being burnt is from Punjab.
Four, rope in the private sector to set up more power plants to dispose of the crop stubble. A privately owned entity will certainly put in more effort to collect crop stubble as a raw material than a government body.
Time and again, it has been proved that Delhi’s pollution crises is related to bad agricultural practices. Why then is the Delhi government, and the judiciary which intervened in the matter, not taking it seriously and instead running after pointless exercises such as the Odd-Even spectacle, or banning of sale of crackers (which usually does not last beyond five days).
Burning of crop stubble is a serious issue, and it is high time that it gets accorded the priority it deserves. It causes health problems, and reduces visibility resulting in an increase in accidents along roads, railway tracks and also delays flights.
We have been pointing out paddy stubble burning as the root cause of pollution for over a year. The Delhi High Court seems to be the only judicial body that has taken notice of this, while governments – although some of them have been proactive in this regard – are still lax about solving the real problem.
How long will our capital remain among the most polluted cities in the world? When will Delhiites be able to breathe cleaner air? The answer to that is uncertain, but the process of solving it is quite clear.
Image credit: NASA Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS)
Srikanth’s interests include public transit, urban management and transportation infrastructure.
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