Delhi smog crisis a long time coming

Source : SIFY
By : Varun Sukumar
Last Updated: Fri, Nov 10, 2017 10:57 hrs

What was a sight usually seen in Beijing is now up close for the citizens of Delhi. For the second day in a row, Delhiites face toxic levels of pollution prompting the government to declare holidays for school for the remainder of the week. The government also decided to stop the entry of trucks carrying non-essential goods and ban construction; anything that could cause more harmful smoke into the air.

The numbers behind the dirty air are historic.

The smog also covered Punjab.

The government has declared a public health crisis. For perspective, the PM 2.5 (fine particle pollutant) level is moderate when it’s between 0 and 100 according to the Air Quality Index (AQI). However, on Wednesday, the AQI was 1000.

The Hindu editorial stated that the central government and the states must address the farm residue burning in the northern part of the country –

“Delhi’s air quality deteriorates with unfailing regularity at this time of the year, with large swathes of north India in the grip of a suffocating smog, but the State governments that can make it easier for millions to breathe do not act with any sense of urgency”.

“It is unconscionable for governments, through indifference and inaction, to subject citizens to such toxic air, and cause extreme suffering especially among people with respiratory ailments and impaired lung function. The smog that envelops the region is exacerbated by the burning of biomass in Punjab and Haryana, and the winter atmosphere is marked by weak ventilation”.

Despite there being a ban on crop burning since 2015, farmers in Punjab burn paddy residue in order to make way for the next crop. In 2015, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) reiterated its order banning straw burning in Delhi NCR and adjoining farming states after thick smog enveloped the northern skies.

The editorial points out the steps that can be taken to lower the pollution levels -

“The national capital needs a major greening effort. Unpaved surfaces raise dust levels as in all Indian cities, but civic agencies ignore the problem”.

“Shifting more of the city’s travel to comfortable public transport can cut fine particulates in congested areas and improve the air for residents. Many such initiatives were taken up by China in its cities to reduce exposure to PM 2.5”.

As a report in The Print suggests, various measures and initiatives are drawn up but do not get implemented due to red tape and lethargy. It quotes an environmental expert closely associated with the Centre’s clean air plans for the NCR who says, “It is a systemic failure and the clear inability to deliver on pre-decided action plans. Maybe government bodies need to be penalized for this”.

A rise in crop burning in Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh has contributed to the toxicity levels of air quality to record high levels. Agricultural stubble that measures into the millions of tones burnt by farmers in north India before the onset of winter is a major factor.

Former Secretary of Agriculture Siraj Hussain in a column for The Print calls for innovation to end stubble burning –

“Since wheat has to be sown in most of the fields, the time between harvesting of paddy and sowing of wheat is just about 15-20 days. Farmers, therefore, prefer to burn the straw to save on time and labor cost”.

“The Bharatiya Kisan Union has demanded that farmers be paid a compensation of Rs 4,000-5,000 per acre…do not think this alone can address the problem as labor required for manually taking out stubble will still not be available”.

“A task force set up by NITI Aayog has projected that a permanent solution can be found with an investment of Rs 11,447 core. It has also recommended investment in energy plants using paddy straw as raw material”.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is in a tough position. Neighboring Punjab is guilty of burning paddy stubble contributing to the already smog filled air. He has sought a meeting with his Punjab counterpart Amarinder Singh, while the AAP leader in Punjab himself has been burning stubble in the name of support to farmers.

On October 15, the leader of the opposition in the Punjab assembly, Sukhpal Khaira, led a protest by farmers where they burnt paddy stubble. This was in response to state’s decision to book farmers who burn stubble. Claiming that the AAP unit in Punjab is autonomous and he had an obligation to protect the interests of the farmers.

The Indian Express editorial stated that government failed to act before an emergency –

“Three weeks ago, with a ban against firecrackers and a graded response action plan (GRAP) in place, Delhi’s authorities seemed better equipped than in the past two years to combat the unhealthy haze that engulfs the city after Diwali”.

“The Delhi government implemented the odd-even policy last year only after the Delhi High Court asked it to submit a time-bound plan. Despite the problems it created for people, there was enough support for the policy which demanded the Delhi government conduct a comprehensive analysis of its successes and failures”.

The smog cover claimed lives as well. Nine persons were killed when a truck mowed them down on the Bathinda-Chandigarh highway and four people were injured in a car pile-up on the Yamuna Expressway near Greater Noida.

The Times of India editorial echoed the sentiments of many stating that authorities were caught napping as a disaster loomed –

“Aside from the technical reasoning, political apathy is a clear culprit. Despite air quality worsening over the last few years, few concrete measures have been undertaken to curb crop burning and local sources of pollution”.

“What’s needed are long-term solutions to address the root causes of this environmental disaster. For example, the number of private cars in Delhi has been steadily increasing over the years. Yet little has been done to augment public transport to reduce road congestion and vehicular pollution”.

The Delhi government has introduced the odd-even plan from November 13-17.

The Delhi Metro has decided to run extra trips providing people the opportunity to use public transport. UN Resident Coordinator Yuri Afanasiev called for an all encompassing approach to tackle the pollution crisis saying in part, “Environmental situations such as the current Delhi smog cannot be tackled just by addressing the issue of the number of cars or banning firecrackers”.

The Hindustan Times editorial summed it up by offering reasons for this problem; which seem to be long term. It also provided solutions to tackle this problem which will need all sections of society to participate in and is still a long road ahead –

“There isn’t a miracle cure for this problem. Air pollution in Delhi has been caused by several decades of continuing irresponsible behavior. Whatever the solution, and however much it costs, it is sure to be offset by the cost of man hours lost due to delays in flights, trains and vehicular traffic due to smog and the staggering health costs involved”.

“Quite simply, it makes economic sense to invest in cleaner technologies and practices. This will require political will, commitment, and a concerted effort by all stakeholders including residents, non-governmental organizations and governmental agencies”.

More columns by Varun Sukumar