Bryan Adams' tryst with Delhi smog

Canadian rock legend Bryan Adams' magical performance at the Leisure Valley Park in Gurugram on Sunday night as part of The Ultimate Bryan Adams India Tour left his fans asking for more.

Taking the stage after an opening act by Bollywood singer Harshdeep Kaur, he began his nearly two-hour gig with his 2017 hit "Ultimate Love" and crooned 24 more numbers before winding up his five-city India tour with 'All For Love’, a song from “The Three Musketeers”.

However, it was his silhouette in the night sky that found a special mention in his Instagram post which has become the talk of the town or rather the country itself.

“New Delhi, India, you were incredible tonight. In this photo, if you look carefully you can see my shadow silhouetted in the dust and smoke of the venue over the audience. I’ve never seen that before. Magical India. Namaste,” Adams wrote on Instagram, sharing an image of the concert.

Several of Adams' Instagram followers were quick to point out the image shows less of India’s “magic” and more of its toxic pollution, with the soft hazy light in the picture being the result of heavy air pollution.

"Namaste for the respiratory diseases,” one person commented.

“Disgusting that India does nothing about their unacceptable levels of pollution. That’s what causes this shadow effect. This isn’t ‘magical’. It’s terrifying,” wrote another.

Delhi: a gas chamber

Smog in New Delhi and adjoining areas in the National Capital Territory is an annual event which peaks during winters. Last year, air pollution peaked on both PM 2.5 and PM 10 levels. It has been reported as one of the worst levels of air quality in Delhi since 1999.

Last year, Delhi and a large part of northern India were covered in a dangerous toxic smog that forced authorities to shut schools, ban diesel-run generators, construction, burning of garbage and non-essential truck deliveries. The situation was so bad that Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal called the city a "gas chamber." On Friday, he warned the city may face the same fate this year because of the unrestrained stubble burning.

The World Health Organisation said earlier this year India was home to the world's 14 most polluted cities, with Delhi ranked the sixth most polluted.

Delhi's biggest coal power plant was set to shut down Monday as a new emergency plan to improve air quality in one of the world's most polluted cities came into force, officials said.

When the air is classed as "poor", as it was on Monday, authorities will ban the burning of garbage in landfills as well as firecrackers and certain construction activities.

When the air is "very poor" diesel generators will be halted, parking fees hiked and more public transport provided. "Severe" measures include closing brick kilns.

When it reaches "severe+", a new category, authorities will stop the entry of trucks except those with essential goods and regulate the number of cars on the road.

The Badarpur thermal plant was due to permanently close on Monday because of its high contribution to pollution in the city.

Smog formation

Smog spikes during winter in Delhi, when air quality often eclipses the World Health Organisation's safe levels.

Cooler air traps pollutants - such as from vehicles, building sites and farmers burning crops in regions outside the capital - close to the ground.

The smog worsens when the heavy smoke from crop burning combines with vehicles and industrial emissions at a time of year when wind speeds drop significantly. Fireworks during Diwali exacerbates the problem.

After last year's crisis, the Government of India introduced some measures aimed at curbing the crop fires, in particular offering to pay up to 80% of certain farm equipment, such as a Straw Management System (SMS) that attaches to a harvester and shreds the residue.

The plan was for the shredded material to be mulched using another machine and irrigated at least twice to get it to decompose. All this would be done without any crops being burned. However, the ground reality is different.

Cheaper to burn

Farmers say the subsidy for SMS and mulching machines wasn't covering the costs of the equipment and the labour involved. It was still much cheaper and easier to burn the residue.

"Farmers know about the repercussions of burning crop stubble and that's why you won't come across a single farmer who really wants to continue with the practice," said Hardev Singh, 58, who grows rice and wheat in the village of Shahjahanpur, which is part of Haryana's Karnal district.

But the cost of disposing of crop residue is so prohibitive that most farmers are forced to set the stubble on fire, Singh said.

It is also time-consuming, and the farmers do not have a lot of time. After harvesting rice, farmers get a short window to plant winter crops such as wheat and rapeseed, and late sowing means lower yields.

The farmers also complained about the lengthy bureaucratic processes to claim the subsidies for the machines.

"The fact that government officials want us to use expensive machines like SMS clearly shows that they are far removed from reality," said Sandeep Pannu, who leases his farms to small growers in Phulak village in Haryana state.

Satellite images from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) confirm the burning has started across the two states.

Last year 40,000 and 25,000 crop residue burning incidents were recorded in Punjab and Haryana, respectively, said an official.

The problem has become more acute in recent years because mechanised harvesters leave more of residue than when crops are plucked by hand. Such harvesters are increasingly popular in the two relatively prosperous states, where farmer lobbies are also politically powerful.

Although the National Green Tribunal has banned crop residue burning, the order is rarely implemented. A lot may depend on the winds. "Let's hope for the best," said a government official. 

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