Swachh air

| Updated on January 15, 2018 Published on November 06, 2016

India needs a holistic, sustainable and people-oriented long-term strategy to curb air pollution

Choking, poisonous smog appears to have become as much a part of the Diwali landscape in the capital as lights and firecrackers. This year too, pollution levels in Delhi surged to alarming highs immediately after the festival, making the city’s air unbreathable and leaving many with impaired respiratory systems seriously ill. And the response from the authorities has followed a familiar pattern — the usual hand-wringing, the standard appeals for avoiding firecrackers, and the ritual bans on loud firecrackers at night, which also, as usual, was observed more in the breach. As usual, citizens continue to suffer.

It is not as if the causes of air pollution in Delhi are not known. Pollution levels in large parts of north India turns critical every winter, mostly due to the burning of crop stubble and residue across farmlands in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh ahead of preparing the soil for rabi sowing. The smoke from these fires spreads across the plains leading to a haze or smog depending on weather conditions. Yet nothing is done to stop farmers from doing this, nor do the governments in the States as well as at the Centre appear unduly worried about the health consequences. This is exacerbated by particulate emissions from poorly maintained and overloaded trucks, construction activity and road dust, which is made worse by the current practice of dry sweeping of roads. Burning municipal waste continues to be prevalent in most Indian cities — including Delhi — despite curbs.

The solutions are also well known, but there has been no discernible movement in actually implementing them. The National Green Tribunal has banned the entry of trucks into the capital, imposed a cess on trucks entering the city and banned the burning of waste — to no effect. The Supreme Court has banned the registration of diesel vehicles with higher capacity engines — again, to little effect. Various court and administrative orders exist — on paper — curbing other activities responsible for particulate emissions. But none of them are implemented in any serious manner. This simply cannot go on. India needs more hard decisions and sustained action to bring pollution down to safe limits. These campaigns should involve not just governments and regulatory bodies but civil societies and people. Improving the public transport network, encouraging the use of clean energy transport and discouraging the use of private transport will bring long-term benefits. Farm subsidies need to be re-oriented — instead of free or highly subsidised power, incentives need to be provided for sustainable agriculture and to prevent burning of crop residues. Composting crop residues can reduce the incidence of burning. Farmers in the Punjab-Haryana belt also need to be encouraged to move away from growing water-intensive crops such as paddy and take up other crops to reduce burning of straw. Fire-crackers cannot be completely banned but their usage can certainly be effectively curbed. Above all, political will is needed to tackle pollution and polluters.

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Published on November 06, 2016
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