Every year, with the onset of winter, the capital of our country is exposed to the most dangerous air pollution. With the rise of air pollution in Delhi, the Union and Delhi state governments blame each other instead of making serious efforts to reduce it, and eventually, the entire blame is shifted to the states around Delhi. When the paddy crop is harvested in early October, there is very little time left for sowing the next crop. Under compulsion, the burning of paddy straw spreads smoke in the air and pollutes the air, leaving all these states around Delhi in the grip of air pollution.
In October last year, when the level of air pollution in Delhi began to rise, an ordinance was issued by the Union government to deal with it, which was immediately implemented in the states around Delhi (Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan). Violators of the ordinance could face up to five years in prison or a fine of Rs 1 crore, or both. The ordinance was issued by the Union government only to teach a lesson to the farmers as they were protesting against the three agriculture laws enacted during 2020. Since then, the Union and Delhi governments have forgotten that Delhi is struggling with air pollution.
In September 2021, two research studies on rising air pollution in Delhi revealed a worrying situation. One of these research studies was conducted by the University of Chicago in the United States of America. This study has brought out the fact that the average age of people living in Delhi will decrease. The life expectancy could be reduced to 9.5 years due to high levels of air pollution. The average age of the people in the southern part of the country is also declining.
The second research study was conducted by Dr. Arvind Kumar of the Lung Care Foundation of India and Dr. Sandeep Salvi of Pulmocare Research and Education Foundation, Pune. The second study looked at the effects of air pollution on the health of school-going children in Delhi, Mysore, and Kottayam. School children in Delhi are more affected by air pollution than school children in Mysore, and Kottayam. In Delhi, one in three school-going children suffers from asthma, while in Mysore, and Kottayam, 22.6 percent of school-going children suffer from asthma- the study revealed.
These studies show that the rising air pollution in Delhi is not related to anyone particular month or season. It stays in Delhi all year round and Delhi has been in its grip for a long time. This is affecting everyone in Delhi, from children to the elderly. These research studies are based on facts, but sadly neither the Union government nor the Delhi state government expressed any concern about these studies nor initiated any action at the time of the release of studies.
Like every year, with the onset of October this year, the Union and Delhi state governments have started issuing statements on rising air pollution. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has said that the air in Delhi remained clear till September, but by mid-October, as a result of paddy straw burning in the neighboring states air pollution in Delhi would increase. Kejriwal also said that states other than Delhi were not helping the farmers as they were burning paddy straw and polluting the air.
The Delhi government has distributed free Pusa Bio-decomposer to the farmers of 39 villages in its area for composting paddy straw on their 1935 acre of agricultural land with very good results. He said that with the spraying of Pusa Bio-decomposer, the straw has decomposed in the field in 15-20 days. The Delhi government can provide free Bio-decomposer and other necessary facilities to the farmers in its area as its arable area is much less than the arable area of Punjab (10500000 acres) and it has a sound financial position as compared to most of the other Indian states.
The problem of smog arises from the burning of paddy straw when the wind speed and temperature are very low, and there is the presence of smoke and dust particles and high humidity in the air. A research study conducted in 2020 by the Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana has revealed that wind speed was so low in 2017, 2018, and 2019 that the pollution caused by paddy straw burning in Punjab, and Haryana could not reach Delhi. The air of these states was polluted by paddy straw burning.
The Delhi Chief Minister said that the air in Delhi was clean till September and now the burning of paddy straw would pollute it. According to the Meteorological Department of India, the monsoon rains in Delhi have broken several previous records. With monsoons this year, Delhi received 1,169.7 mm of rainfall, which is 80 percent more than normal. Heavy rains cause pollutants in the air to settle on the ground, which helps maintain a good air quality index.
According to the criterion of the Air Quality Index, 0 to 50 is considered good, 51 to 100 is considered satisfactory, 101-200 is considered moderate, 201 to 300 is considered poor, 301 to 400 is considered very poor and 401 to 500 is considered very poor. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, Delhi’s air quality index on September 18 was only 69 after heavy rains, which was not good, only satisfactory.
In addition, the concentration of PM10 and PM 2.5 was 67 and 27 per cubic meter respectively, which is considered good or not satisfactory by national standards. As per the old (2005) WHO criterion, on September 18, 2021, the concentration of PM10 and PM 2.5 was 3.3 and 2.7 times higher but according to the new standards( 2021) their concentration is 4.6 times and 5.4 times higher respectively.
According to the Central Pollution Control Board, in the eight months from the start of January to the end of August 2021 in Delhi, not a single day Delhi residents got good quality air. In contrast, in 2020, Delhiites breathed fresh air for 5 days, while in the two years of 2019 and 2017, the number of these days was 4, i.e. 2 days in 2019, and 2 days in 2017. In 2018, Delhi’s air quality has been poor for 365 days. So, in the last five years, the Delhi Air Quality Index has been good for only nine days.
Now the question arises that if the burning of paddy straw increases air pollution in Delhi in the month of October, then the air in Delhi should remain clean for at least the remaining 11 months, but the records of the Central Pollution Control Board prove it otherwise. In the last 5 years, on average, only 1.8 days a year, Delhi residents got clean air. According to a report by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, the total emissions of greenhouse gases from the agricultural sector in 2014 was 16 percent, which has come down to only 14 percent in 2016.
The energy sector, which includes power generation and transportation, accounted for 72.2 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in 2014 and 75 percent in 2016. Delhi is no exception to this fact. It is not the farmers in the agricultural sector or the states around Delhi who are responsible for Delhi’s air pollution, but mainly Delhi’s local sources. These facts came to light in Delhi even during the lockdown period in the days of the COVID-19 pandemic, but with the onset of winter, the Union and Delhi state governments have started politicizing the issue again.
The Chief Minister of Delhi has formulated a 10-point Winter Action Plan to tackle Delhi’s winter air pollution; (1) Stopping of paddy straw burning (2) Anti-dust campaign to be strengthened (3) Stopping the burning of garbage (4) Ban on firecrackers, (5) Installation of more smog towers (6) Constantly Monitoring of pollution hotspots (7)Strengthening of green war rooms (8)Constantly monitoring the green Delhi app(9) Construction of Eco waste parks, and (10)Taking steps to minimize traffic jams to reduce vehicular pollution.
Of the 10 points to deal with winter air pollution, only one is related to agriculture and the states adjoining Delhi. No one can deny that burning paddy straw pollutes the air, but it is not fair or justifiable to place all the blame on it. Last year, the Union government itself admitted that burning paddy straw increased Delhi’s total air pollution by 4-6 percent and the remaining 94-96 percent from other sources. This 10 point program of the Delhi Chief Minister also makes it clear that the nine points are related to the local activities of the city of Delhi.
Therefore, the Delhi government should take steps to curb the rising air pollution in Delhi by identifying local sources of pollution and not wasting time in trying unsuccessfully to absolve itself of all responsibility by blaming the neighboring states. The Delhi government should implement this 10-point Winter Pollution Action Plan not only to reduce air pollution in winter but also to curb the rapidly increasing pollution throughout the year in Delhi in a systematic manner. Doing so would start reducing air pollution in Delhi.
According to IQAIR, air pollution in Delhi can be estimated from the fact that 34,000 people have died in Delhi by this time in 2021 due to air pollution and it led to an economic loss of USD 5 billion. As a result of increasing air pollution, the common man is dying prematurely due to various diseases. What would the children do for the future of the country when their own future is being tarnished by air pollution.
Therefore, the Union government should implement Delhi’s 10-Point Winter Action Plan to save the present and future generations of the country, not just in Delhi but across the country. At the same time, it is the duty of the Delhi government to increase the public transport in proportion to the population and make it so efficient that people start preferring public transport over private ones. Renewable energy sources should be used in all kinds of industrial units running on oil and coal, and means of transportation.
The Delhi government should put a complete ban on the uprooting of old trees in Delhi and plan to plant local trees in place of ornamental trees and take good care of the Aravalli hills and their forests to save Delhi from sand-laden winds coming from Rajasthan and they will also help to reduce pollution by absorbing the rising greenhouse gases. If the Delhi government avoids the tendency to blame the farmers of the neighboring states and follows the above suggestions and some other measures, air pollution in Delhi can be easily controlled.
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About the Author
Dr. Gurinder Kaur, Former Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala, and Visiting Professor at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute.