By Dr Gurinder Kaur*
Delhi – this year as every other year – is engulfed into smog with the onset of winter and the Delhi government as usually immediately started blaming other states for air pollution in Delhi. The Central government was already not in the line with farmers’ interest, took an opportunity to issue a new ordinance on October 29, 2020, stating that the farmers are responsible for smog of Delhi.
Violators of this ordinance are liable to either imprisonment for five years or a fine of one crore rupees or both. This ordinance has been implemented immediately in Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. The Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar told reporters that the new ordinance will significantly reduce the air pollution in Delhi and the National Capital Region.
The farmers termed the ordinance as an act of vengeance of the Central government, but they are struggling to repeal the three agricultural laws passed the Central government during Covid-19 lockdown. The ordinance is very strange or questionable due to which the issue of Delhi’s air pollution problem is highly debatable.
Before deep diving into Delhi’s air pollution, let us understand the following basic aspects:
- What type of air pollution is existing in Delhi?
- Is Delhi first time experiencing this type of air pollution problem?
- Who is responsible for Delhi’s air pollution problem? Is it the farmers of the adjoining states of Delhi or Delhi itself is responsible or are there other reasons?
- What is the main reason of Delhi’s air pollution?
Every year in the beginning of winter, not only Delhi, but whole of the Northern India is enveloped in ‘Smog’ which is the worst kind of air pollution. ‘Smog’ is a combination of ‘Fog’ and ‘Smoke’. Fog is a natural phenomenon during winters, and it disappears soon after sunrise. However, smog is formed when the air is contaminated with huge amount of pollutants and it gets thicker and thicker after sunrise. Smog is categorized into two types:
- London Smog
- Photochemical Smog/Los Angeles Smog
London Smog is formed when fumes of half-burnt coal releasing gases like Sulphur Dioxide and Nitrogen Oxide combine with fog. Photochemical Smog is produced by the chemical reaction of half-burnt and un-burnt oxides of nitrogen, hydro-carbon etc. in the presence of sunlight under certain geographical and meteorological conditions. It is found in areas where there is an abundance of motor vehicles and industrial units which are driven by petrol and diesel.
Delhi and National Capital Region are experiencing both types of smog in every year in winters. Air pollution is a perennial phenomenon in Delhi for more than two decades, which gets worse in winters. Every year, more than one world research organizations confirm that Delhi’s air pollution has reached dangerous levels.
According to a 2012 World Health Organization (WHO) report, 13 of the world’s top 20 most polluted cities were found in India and Delhi was declared as most polluted city of the world. In 2014, a report by researchers of Yale university, USA and WHO again declared Delhi as the world’s most polluted city, but the Indian government expressed skepticism instead of taking steps to reduce air pollution. Two years later in 2016, another WHO report declared Delhi as the second most polluted city in the world.
The World Air Quality Report, 2019 released by Air Visual Institute on February 25, 2020 reveals even more worrying fact that 21 of the top 30 most polluted cities of the world are in India and Delhi is the world’s most polluted capital. According to various researches it would not be an exaggeration to say that air pollution in Delhi as well as in the country has reached at an all-time dangerous peak.
This year again Delhi is still engulfed in smog with the onset of winter and the Government of Delhi immediately started blaming the farmers of adjoining states for air pollution instead of slashing its own bed. The Central government immediately issued a strange ordinance to punish the polluters. Now the question arises that are the farmers actually responsible for air pollution in Delhi or is Delhi itself responsible for it?
We have to go a little back to find out who is really responsible for this pollution. The air in Delhi was heavily polluted even in 1990-2000 decade but at that time the intention of the Central government was impartial, so they found the real reason to save Delhi’s air from being polluted by diesel-driven buses and auto-rickshaws and suggesting them to use CNG in place of diesel. The Central government had controlled the air pollution of Delhi because at that time only buses and auto-rickshaws were using diesel. Since then, the Delhiites have been enjoying pollution-free air for many years.
Again, from the last decade the air pollution has been causing havoc in Delhi and the Nation Capital Region and the Delhi government is turning its back on the adjoining states to shoulder its responsibilities. The actual reason of increasing air pollution in Delhi is its increasing number of vehicles, industries, rapid increase in construction activities, thermal power plants, bricklins, burning of garbage dumps, indiscriminate cutting of trees and air flights.
In recent years, the number of cars has increased from only 24 lakh in 2000 to 1 crore and 12 lakh in 2018, which are releasing large amount of carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), Sulphur dioxide, Ozone and other gases daily which pollute Delhi’s environment. According to a study conducted by the Meteorological Department of Delhi and the Center for Science and Environment in 2012, 70 per cent of air pollution in Delhi is caused by vehicles only.A research conducted by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, highlighted that different sources are releasing 312 tons of sulphur dioxide, 142 tons of nitrogen oxide, 59 tons of P.M. 2.5 and 143 tons of P.M. I0 every day in Delhi’s environment. Out of that 98 per cent of nitrogen oxide, 60 per cent of sulphur dioxide, 14 per cent of PM 10 and 10 per cent of PM 2.5 are released only by industrial units.
There is no denying the fact that even burning of paddy and wheat residues pollute the air, but it only lasts for 20-25 days in a year which is contributing a 4-6 per cent in the already existing pollution. It is important to know that farmers are forced to burn paddy and wheat residues due to their economic hardship.
Reason for increasing air pollution in Delhi is increasing number of vehicles, industries, rapid increase in construction activities, thermal power plants, burning of garbage dumps Besides, basically paddy was not the crop of Punjab and Haryana and it was imposed on the states for meeting the requirements of the Central Pool of Food grains through favourable MSP and assured procurement.
Another factor responsible for paddy stubble burning is that in order to conserve ground water levels in the states of Punjab and Haryana the paddy plantation season was pushed from May to June, to coincide with India’s monsoons. This, too, has shortened the time between harvesting of paddy and sowing of wheat.
Neither the Central government nor the State government refutes that these internal activities of Delhi are responsible for pollution in Delhi because the skies had cleared up during the Covid-19 lockdown, meanwhile farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh were harvesting wheat crop and burning wheat straws.
A Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana research study highlighted the fact that smoke from burning paddy straw remains trapped in Punjab because smoke only disperses into farther directions when speed of wind is high but when air is still, smoke leads to buildup of smog in its proximity.
The PAU study also shows that in 2017, 2018 and 2019, speed of wind was below 5km per hour which couldn’t have drifted this localized smog from Punjab all the way to Delhi and the National Capital Region. Besides Punjab, if we analyze the other states, in Rajasthan total area under wheat crop is very small. Paddy plantation is not possible in Rajasthan due to scarcity of water.
Moving on, Uttar Pradesh can receive polluted air from Delhi if high winds are blowing else if air blows from South-East then it could drift Delhi smoke to pollute Haryana and Punjab’s air because air knows no boundaries and doesn’t seek anyone’s permission to travel. The surrounding states are less responsible in polluting Delhi’s air, but Delhi has been a key player in polluting air of its neighboring states.
If those who live in Delhi and the National Capital Region disobey the ordinance, they must be fined and punished by law. The difference is Delhiites are polluting the air for profit, personal comforts and pleasure whereas farmers in helplessness pollute the air while producing different crops for the entire country due to lack of resources and being poor.
The burning of paddy stubble and wheat straw generates 4-6 per cent pollution for 20-25 days, only if the direction of air is flowing North-West otherwise Delhi itself is solely responsible for its air pollution. So, both the Delhi and Central governments should take initiatives like they did in 2000 to mitigate the grave problem of air pollution but not punish the poor farmers.
The Central government should not deny national and international reports of air pollution or find a scapegoat to blame it on rather should have a solid strategy to mitigate the existing issues and tackle future risks related to air pollution. Air pollution is on rise not only in Delhi and the National Capital Region but also in the other states of the country.
According to a Greenpeace India report released on January 21, 2020, 80 per cent cities have polluted air according to national air quality standard. Lungli (Mizoram) is the only city in the entire country which is having clean air according to the international air quality standard. Another report, State of Global Air 2020, has revealed that 16.7 lakh people died in India out of which 1 lakh 16 thousand are babies who died in the first month of their life due to polluted air.
So, both the Delhi and Central governments should take initiatives like they did in 2000 to mitigate the grave problem of air pollution but not punish the poor farmers. The Central government instead of punishing farmers should co-operate with them, understanding their problems, provide helpful solutions and hand in hand save the nation’s air from getting polluted.
It would become possible by increasing the share of national income being given to the agricultural sector. This share must be enough to satisfy the basic needs of the farming community. It is imperative for the government to take steps to control air pollution as several reports have indicated that our future looks grim if serious measures are not taken. Instead of contradicting, ignoring or dismissing negative reports about the air quality index the Central government must take them seriously and use it to strengthen the country’s green policies and environmental governance structure.
The Government of India should take immediate and well-planned steps to curb the rising air pollution and not be ridiculed around the world by rejecting reports. To deal with air pollution India has to learn from the experiences of different countries of the world as almost all the developed countries have also suffered from air pollution problem in the last century but now, they have overcome it.
In 1952, in London 4,000 people died in one week due to dangerous levels of air pollution and 8,000 more died in the next four weeks. Aftermath of this incident, the British government seriously planned to deal with the problem, and they overcame it. The British government has made public transport so efficient that people prefer public transport to private vehicles. In addition, special facilities have been provided to pedestrians and cyclists. In France, public transport is provided free of charge on public holidays. In the same way the Indian government needs to streamline public transport services, so that people need fewer private vehicles. Pavements and bicycle lanes should be constructed on the roads as required with special care for pedestrians and cyclists. Purification devices should be installed in industrial units so that the hazardous gases emitted from the industries don’t endanger the health of people. Replace diesel engines with energy from natural sources.
Pollution from soil, sand and gravel etc. during construction work should be reduced. Airports both domestic and international should be facilitated in every state to distribute air traffic more uniformly across the states which will help to reduce extreme buildup of air pollution in Delhi. For example- Mohali airport is capable to execute both domestic and international flights. So, if government increases the frequency and access of this airport, it will be beneficial.
In addition, the government should seriously implement the programmes like National Clean Air Programme Graded Response Action Plan and the like. and impose appropriate fines on any polluting industrial units, vehicles, construction unit and the like. We don’t have enough time to play blame game, we must take immediate steps to ensure that our delays don’t lead to a situation where we are left to look like England in 1952 and innocent people fell victim of air pollution. Besides the main responsibility of the Central government to keep the country clean it is also a question of our personal character. It is the duty of all our citizens to keep their surroundings clean and not to do anything that harms our environment.
*Professor, Punjabi University, Patiala. The article is based on a webinar Delhi Air Pollution and its solutions as part of the series on The State of the Environment #PlanetTalks. Inputs: Dr Simi Mehta