Beware! Breathing is injurious to health

The toxic smog that choked Delhi and adjoining areas was neither new, nor would it be the last one. It's a problem, which has been there for decades with a steady rise in its scale, thanks to rapid urbanisation of Delhi and its four satellite towns. What led to the crisis is the apathy of the politicians and bureaucrats to address the issue, despite knowing its magnitude for years.

India's national capital is surrounded by fertile farmlands of Punjab, Haryana and west Uttar Pradesh, where the farmers follow a paddy-wheat cycle. Take the case of Punjab for example. Because of a water saving law – the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act, 2009 – nursery sowing and transplanting of paddy in the fields can't take place before May 15 and June 15 respectively. Since the high yielding varieties are of long duration which take nearly 160 days to mature, the paddy is ready for harvest by around October 15.

On the other hand, wheat needs to be planted by November 15 for the crop to receive maximum temperature by mid-April for a good yield. In Punjab-Haryana-west UP, the wheat crop preferred by the farmers are those that mature in 140-150 days. This leaves a tiny window of 30 days for the farmers to clear the field of paddy straw. The paddy-wheat cycle is followed in more than four million hectares of agricultural land.

Mechanised farming complicates the issue. With manual harvesting, paddy crops are cut close to the ground leaving a short stubble. But labour being expensive, the farmers now rely on machines. The machines, however, leave 50-60 cm of standing stubble and 40-50 cm loose straw and disposing of them in a short span of time is a challenge. Hence, the farmers take the easy option and burn the stubble, fully knowing its consequences. They too bear the brunt of the toxic smog, but plead helplessness in the absence of an alternative

According to a 2016 report prepared by the IIT-Kanpur, the contribution of biomass burning in winter is quite high in the national capital, ranging from 17% (for PM-10) to 26% (PM-2.5). And the smog chokes not only Delhi but a vast region from Punjab and Haryana to large tracts of Uttar Pradesh.

"The enhanced concentration of particle matter in October-November is possibly due to the effect of post-monsoon crop residue burning. Air pollution from biomass burning originated from crop residue burning prevalent in Punjab and Haryana in winter. The back trajectory analyses suggest that biomass emissions may be transported to Delhi from the sources upwind of Delhi in the north-west direction. There is a need to control or find alternatives to eliminate crop residue burning emissions to observe significant improvement in air quality in Delhi," says the IIT report.

No respite in sight

During his two-year tenure as the Union Environment Minister, Prakash Javadekar chaired multiple review meetings with officials of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan to find a solution to the recurring problem. Javadekar claimed that the Punjab government agreed to purchase balers, a type of farm machinery that took out the stubble from the field and made a roll. There are also other farm equipment like Turbo Happy Seeder and Super Straw Management System to take care of the stubble and straw problems. But last year when the Punjab government sought Rs 1,109 crore from the Centre to provide 40% subsidy to farmers, the state received only Rs 48.5 crore.

Harsh Vardhan, Javadekar's successor in the ministry, is yet to take a call on how to resolve the problem. The ENT doctor-turned-politician told Delhiites not to panic even as the NCR was chocking, leaving its citizens gasping for breath.

It's not that there is no solution other than having expensive farm machinery. Introduction of early maturing varieties of paddy could be one option. The machines could be purchased collectively with some government back up. There could be other technological fixes, as was shown by Technology Information Forecasting and Assessment Council under the science ministry nearly two decades ago. But when it came to scale up the programme, Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh barely showed any interest.

The Punjab government is not the only one at fault. For the last three years, the AAP government in Delhi did little to reduce road dust that contributes to 56% of PM-10 emissions and 38% PM-2.5 emissions. Although there are options like landscaping, covering the open space with grass, sprinkling water on debris and ensuring dust-free construction, none of them  has been followed in Delhi.

Successive governments in Delhi did little to improve the fleet of buses in the national capital. The last two times buses were purchased in bulk for Delhi were in 2004-05, when the Supreme Court made it mandatory for buses to run on CNG and in 2009-10 when a large air-conditioned bus fleet was required to ferry the athletes participating in the Commonwealth Games. While the Delhi Transport Corporation needs more than 11,000 buses for its operation, there are about 3,500 buses in the depots. The Arvind Kejriwal government now announced buying of 500 electric buses and assured the National Green Tribunal to add 2,000 more buses by next year, but maintained silence on what the government did in the last three years.

Other contributors include thermal power plants – 13 power plants with a capacity of over 11,000 MW in a 300 km radius – to 9,000 plus eateries in Delhi that use coal for tandoori items. Also, a sea of trucks enter the city every day leaving their pollution footprint, though many of these lorries are not destined for Delhi. None of these problems, however, are insurmountable, if there is a political will. That is what is lacking in smog-choked Delhi.

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