Opinion

Delhi’s smog is Delhi’s doing

A Narayanamoorthy P Alli | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 09, 2016

The haze is clear And it’s mainly due to vehicular traffic   -  Sushil Kumar Verma

It’s the traffic that’s mainly responsible, not farmers in Haryana and Punjab burning crop stubble

It is no surprise that resource-poor farmers become convenient scapegoats for whatever and whenever any crisis hits the country. Whether it is over-exploitation of groundwater or environmental pollution, condemning farmers’ actions has become the norm.

Despite the Central Groundwater Board’s (CGWB) revelations that cities are also culprits, farmers continue to be blamed for groundwater exploitation.

Now, they are being blamed for the worsening air quality of Delhi-NCR.

The worst yet

The capital is facing its worst spell of persistent smog in nearly two decades. According to the latest data from the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), New Delhi, the levels of PM10 and PM2.5 particles have reached 876 and 680 micrograms per cubic metre, against the safe limits of 100 and 60 micrograms per cubic metre respectively.

A complex mix of factors such as Diwali fireworks, urban emissions from vehicles, cooking, lighting, waste-burning, industries, power plants and construction activities can be held responsible for the extreme level of pollution. However, the State government has singled out stubble burning by the farmers of Punjab and Haryana as the prime cause for the ongoing crisis. Way back in 2012, similar accusations were made by the then State government.

Were this true, the air quality in Lucknow, Chandigarh and Amritsar, which fall between Delhi, Punjab and Haryana, would also have also been alarmingly high. However, there’s been no such news report so far. If the pollutants from Punjab and Haryana were actually causing the high levels of toxity in Delhi, shouldn’t they have been held responsible for the same conditions in their own home States?

The spike in pollution levels in Delhi’s air is an annual winter ordeal, and so is the burning of paddy and wheat stubble after the crop is harvested. But how much does burning crop residues contribute to Delhi’s pollution peaks? Do we have any definite answers?

As rightly pointed out by an expert at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), Delhi’s pollution level continues to be critical even after the burning stops. Does it still make any sense to suspect farmers’ actions? Why is it that urbanities leave no stone unturned to accuse farmers whenever there is a system failure?

Real culprit is within

The Union environment minister has categorically stated that satellite images from ISRO prove that the neighbouring States were responsible for only 20 per cent of the pollution; the remaining 80 per cent was strictly from Delhi and mainly due to its garbage problem. A study by the Central Pollution Control Board and IIT Kanpur (2015) has highlighted this.

Goyal (2014) of Centre for Atmoshperic Sciences, IIT-Delhi, made a very crucial observation that the largest contributor of air pollutant emissions in Delhi is vehicles, followed by industries, power plants and domestic sources.

A recent joint report by IIT-Kanpur, Delhi Pollution Control Committee and Department of Environment, NCT Delhi (2016) clearly suggests that the single largest contributor is road dust, accounting for about 56 perccent of PM10 and about 38 perccent of PM2.5. These studies do blame crop burning, but rank it behind major pollutants such as road dust, vehicles and industry. When these credible studies have identified the real culprits of air pollution, why are farmers being held responsible?

The per capita registration of high emission vehicles in Delhi is reportedly the highest in India; more than half of the city’s middle-class homes have two or more cars. This has led the vehicle population to treble since 2007.

Cramped residential quarters around the industrial zones not only lead to traffic congestion but also stop polluted air from escaping. When the city’s planning itself is flawed, isn’t it ridiculous to blame farmers?

Do farmers have a choice?

Burning of crops is not a new phenomenon in India. In order to remove all unwanted plants and shrubs in a quick, cheap and easy manner, farmers from time immemorial have set fire to their fields after harvesting.

However, burning stubble has become inevitable and frequent in recent years as combine harvesters do not cut the crop close to ground and farmers’ financial condition does not allow them to dispose of the stubble mechanically.

Another problem farmers face is that the time period is very small. Farmers in most wheat-growing States, for instance, barely have three weeks between the kharif harvest and sowing. This has to be done between the third week of October and the middle of November. Each day of delay in sowing costs them dear.

When the resource-poor farmers are already burdened with the rising cost of farm inputs, how can they invest more funds to dispose of crop stubble?

The way out

Air pollution in Delhi can be checked, provided the State has the will to do it. Residents too should be willing to change their lifestyle. But as far as the sources of pollution are concerned, the Centre and the State need to rethink the model of urban development that is being followed.

Some long-term measures include imposing a ceiling on the number of vehicles per household, controlling the registration of diesel vehicles, using CNG engines for public transport and phasing out old commercial vehicles, restricting and regulating construction activities, efficient management of garbage and banning smoke-generating fireworks at all social events.

Research initiatives also need to be undertaken to ensure that the mechanised harvester does not leave behind crop stubble.

The Government should put in place the right financial incentives and ensure that the collected straw is used in biomass plants for power generation.

These sustainable measures, if followed strictly, can definitely address the root cause of air pollution in Delhi.

Narayanamoorthy is HoD, economics and rural development, Alagappa University, Karaikudi; Alli is an assistant professor in the department of social sciences, VIT, Vellore, Tamil Nadu

Published on December 09, 2016
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