As we attempt to deal with the latest episode of apocalyptic levels of air pollution in the NCR region, it is pertinent to recall the words of Dr Manmohan Singh, the former prime minister of India: “In a crisis, we act constructively. When it is over, status quo takes over”.
The crisis this year, gives us an opportunity again to act constructively. Cynics will say that nothing much will change after the latest episode of crisis and things will go back to the way it was earlier. As an optimist, I feel this year might be the tipping point.
Air pollution is now a public health emergency. The World Health Organisation dubbed it the ‘new tobacco’ – breathing severely polluted air is as bad as smoking 20 cigarettes a day. The levels being seen now in Delhi and other areas of north India imply people are smoking many packets of cigarette in a day, which makes it worse than chain smoking!
The meteorology and geography of a place determines which of the sources is a major contributor to its air pollution. For Delhi, depending on the season, sources like stubble burning, happening hundreds of kilometres away, may contribute from nothing in peak summer to more than 50 per cent in winter. The pollution is transported in the direction in which the wind blows. Bengaluru on the other hand, has hardly any external sources of air pollution, as 80 to 90 per cent of the sources of its pollution are local. However, the same cannot be said for places, which are downwind of Bengaluru such as Channapatna and Kunigal, that face the brunt of the city’s pollution.
Airshed-based approach to tackling pollution
The solutions required to mitigate the effects of air pollution for each of the sources are well known. In most of the cases it is the sheer failure of governance, which results in such a severe manifestation of the problem.
However, management of air pollution sources, particularly those which affect territories over thousands of kilometres such as stubble burning, require high levels of co-ordination and co-operation. In the current administrative and legal framework, where each state looks at air quality within their respective administrative boundaries, it is bound to catastrophically fail, as can be seen all around us.
We will need to evolve new frameworks which will focus on reducing air pollution in an ‘airshed’, i.e. the entire area over which the pollutants disperse due to meteorological and geographical factors. Such airshed-based air quality management has been successfully tried in many places across the world, especially in California, United States. The concept is very similar to ‘watershed’, an area of land that drains all the streams and rainfall into a common outlet like a river.
The region of the Indo-Gangetic plain, for example, may be considered as one airshed. The region extends from Rawalpindi in Pakistan to Rangpur in northern Bangladesh and passes through some of the most populous states of India -- Punjab, Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. This region is home to 900 million people and is among the world’s highly agriculturally-productive regions. The region is also reported as one of the largest source of PM 2.5 -- particulate matter so small that they lodge directly in the lungs when breathed in – due to anthropogenic activities, burning of crop residue and biomass, forest fires, vehicular emission, brick kilns and coal-based power plants.
A recent survey showed that six of the world’s most polluted cities in terms of PM 2.5 are in Uttar Pradesh and three are from Bihar. Varanasi, the parliamentary constituency represented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is ranked 14th on the list. Due to the enforcement of rules and regulations based on administrative boundaries, diesel auto rickshaws banned for over a decade in Delhi, continue to run in Varanasi and Patna, although the Bihar government has now acted to ban diesel auto rickshaws in its capital and adjoining areas from 2021. Similarly, coal-powered thermal power plants like the Badarpur and Indraprastha power stations, stopped from running due to their high pollution levels in Delhi, continue to run in other parts of the Indo-Gangetic plain.
Blending short and long-term solutions
The chief minister of Punjab in an emotional letter to the prime minister of India gives a very viable solution, which if implemented can result in drastic reduction of stubble burning next year. His plan of providing a separate bonus of Rs 100 per quintal to facilitate stubble management by farmers could well solve the problem in the short term. The cost of his plan, as per his estimates, is Rs 1,700 crore. However, due to near bankrupt state coffers, he is seeking assistance from the central government.
It’s a very sorry state of governance in India that a ‘rich’ state government with an annual budget of Rs 1,60,000 crore is not able to finance this. We should keep in mind that the monies spent will go to their own farmers (many of who are small and marginal and cannot afford the extra cost required on their own) and also help in improving the health of more than half of its own residents, as they also breathe the same polluted air.
That brings us to the other question – who will foot the bill? The Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi (GNCTD) is one of the few states in India with a surplus budget. With an annual budget of Rs 60,000 crore, it should be possible for it to incentivise farmers to stop crop burning. Applying the airshed principle, if one were to split the cost across all the five Indian states of the Indo-Gangetic plain (Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal), which are most affected by the stubble burning, it would be even lesser than the monies spent by many of them on protecting cows! Protecting our children from ‘chain smoking’ should take precedence.
(Yogesh Ranganath works in the philanthropy space and is exploring collaborations with sarkar, samaj and bazaar to improve air quality)