The Supreme Court, on November 15, said that the stubble burning by farmers in the neighbouring States is not the major cause for air pollution in Delhi; rather, it is urban factors such as construction activities, industrial emissions and vehicular pollution.

The resource-poor farmers become the 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 fashionable these days.

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

Delhi has been facing persistent pollution for nearly two decades now. 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 metres, against the safe limits of 100 and 60 micrograms per cubic metres, respectively.

A complex mix of factors such as Diwali fireworks, urban emissions from vehicles, cooking, lighting, waste burning, industries, power plants and construction activities are responsible for such extreme level of pollution. However, for the last few years, the State government has singled out stubble burning by the farmers of Punjab and Haryana as the prime cause for the air pollution.

Way back in 2012, similar accusations were made by the then State government. Had the stubble burning in these States been the only cause for Delhi’s severe air pollution, then the air quality in Lucknow, Chandigarh and Amritsar which fall between Delhi, Punjab and Haryana would have been alarmingly high as well. However, no such news report has ever appeared. 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 home States?

The skyrocketing pollution level in Delhi’s air is an annual winter ordeal, and so is the burning of paddy and wheat stubble by farmers of Punjab and Haryana after the crop is harvested. But how much does burning of 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 of stubble stops.

Delhi’s own problem

Discarding the State government’s allegations on the farmers of the neighbouring States, the Union Environment Minister some years ago categorically stated that the satellite images by ISRO proves that the neighbouring States were responsible for only 20 per cent of the pollution, whereas 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) too highlighted the same. Goyal (2014) of Centre for Atmoshperic Sciences, IIT Delhi, made a crucial observation that the largest contributor of air pollutant emissions in Delhi is found to be vehicles followed by industries, power plants and domestic sources.

A latest joint report by IIT Kanpur, Delhi Pollution Control Committee and Department of Environment, NCT Delhi (2016) suggests that the single largest contributor to the State’s air pollution is road dust, accounting for about 56 per cent of PM10 and about 38 per cent of PM2.5. These studies do blame crop burning, but find it a distant factor behind the major pollutants like road dust, vehicles and industry. Why are the farmers being repeatedly blamed when these credible studies have spilled the beans about the real culprit of air pollution?

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, which is indeed a sign of their growing affluence. This has led to vehicle population to treble since 2007. Cramped residential quarters around the industrial zones not only lead to traffic congestion but also stop the polluted air from escaping.

We must not forget that stubble burning activity is not a new phenomenon in India. To remove all unwanted plants and shrubs in a quick, cheap and easy mode, farmers from time immemorial have been undertaking the exercise of setting fire to their fields after harvesting. However, burning of stubble has become inevitable and very frequent in the recent years as the combine harvesters do not cut the crop close to ground and their financial condition does not allow them to dispose of the stubble mechanically.

Another problem that the farmers face is that the time period is very small. Farmers in most of the wheat-growing States, for instance, barely have three weeks between the kharif harvest and the sowing of wheat. This has to be done between the third week of October to the middle of November. In case farmers miss it, each day of delay in sowing the wheat costs them a lot. When the resource-poor farmers are already burdened with rising cost of farm inputs, how can they invest more funds to dispose of crop stubble?

Way out

Delhi’s air pollution can be checked, provided the State has the will to do it and the residents should be also willing to change their lifestyle. But as far as the sources of pollution within the national capital are concerned, the Centre and the State need to rethink on the entire model of urban development that is being followed. Some long-term measures that can be suggested for cutting down the extreme pollution levels include, imposing a ceiling on number of vehicles per household, controlling diesel vehicles registration, using of CNG engines for public transport and phasing out old commercial vehicles, restricting and regulating construction activities, efficient management of garbage and banning of smoke generating fireworks in all social events.

Research initiatives also need to be undertaken to ensure that the mechanised harvester does not leave the crop stubble behind. The government should also take initiatives by putting in place the right financial incentives and ensure that the collected straw can be used in biomass plants for power generation. These long term sustainable measures, if followed strictly, can definitely address the root cause of air pollution in Delhi.

Narayanamoorthy is former full-time Member (Official), CACP, New Delhi, and Alli is Senior Assistant Professor, Department of Social Sciences, Vellore Institute of Technology. Views are personal