Bad air alert: Why we fail to tackle killer winter pollution year after year

In roughly a month, toxic air pollution will leave Delhi gasping again. But why have authorities failed to address this annual health emergency despite so much noise? And what needs to be done now?

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A child rides a bicycle wearing a mask near India Gate as a thick blanket of smog covers the sky
From mid-October, the pollution level starts rising in the Delhi-NCR region. (Photo: PTI/File)

On Tuesday, many of us happily shared on social media photographs of Delhi’s clear and blue skyline. In roughly a month, the picture might dramatically change.

From mid-October, like in previous years, a blanket of smog is likely to leave millions in Delhi and the rest of North India coughing and gasping for breath. Respiratory units of hospitals will get crowded. Politics will peak. The courts will reprimand the Centre and states. If pollution levels go off the charts like they often do schools will be shut, construction activity will halt and the road space-rationing scheme called Odd-Even will roll out.

During the one-month period, we will basically hold our breath till the skies clear again -- after a few deaths and several cases of lung damage. But everything will be forgotten in the din of crucial state elections that await us. Little surprise that International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies (September 7) often goes under our radar, despite Delhi frequently ranking as the most polluted city in the world, with a rising death toll and age-reducing health complications.

The previous generation cherished winters with Gulzar’s “jaadon ki narm dhoop” waali warm poetry. We now identify more with Shahryar’s rather dark description of the human condition: “Seene me jalan, aankhon mein toofan sa kyun hai” Or we make memes showing inhaling the air in Delhi during winters is like smoking, say, 20 cigarettes a day.

WHAT’S BEHIND IT?

But exactly what causes this mayhem? Government authorities keep commissioning inquiries and investigations, which are never conclusive. Chasing that elusive single factor becomes an excuse for inaction, many would argue. However, here is what is apparent to the naked eye.

Since the monsoon is over and there is hardly any wind speed, this deadly cocktail doesn’t get cleared up.

It’s the time of year when weather changes. The smoke from farm fires, coal-fired power plants, garbage burning, Diwali fireworks, besides vehicular and industrial emissions, get trapped in the fog to cause smog. Since the monsoon is over and there is hardly any wind speed, this deadly cocktail doesn’t get cleared up.

FARM FIRES

But farm fires, primarily in Punjab but also in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, have been blamed the most for the winter smog in Delhi and the rest of North India.

During the Kharif season, paddy is sown on three million hectares of land in Punjab, resulting in roughly 20 million tonnes of paddy crop residue every year. Half of it is mixed in the soil or used as fuel. The rest is burnt, usually from October 15 to November 15, because burning is a fast and economical way for farmers to clear the fields for the sowing of the Rabi season wheat crop. The time taken is crucial because the sowing window is short.

Till last winter, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal blamed Punjab for turning the national capital into "a gas chamber". This will not be possible now because his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has replaced the Congress in Punjab as the ruling party. So, are things looking up now? Far from it.

HEARTBURN AGAIN

This time, Punjab sought Rs 1,125 crore from the BJP-ruled Centre to provide a cash incentive for farmers not to burn crop stubble. Punjab and Delhi wanted to contribute Rs 375 on their parts. Reports say that the Centre has rejected the proposal. “The cash incentive per acre will have to be reduced from the proposed Rs 2,500 to Rs 1,000,” said an AAP source. And this means fewer farmers will be encouraged not to set their farms on fire.

Union agriculture ministry sources said that the Centre is doing its part and Punjab must do the rest. "We have sanctioned Rs 275 crore for supplying over 32,000 subsidised machines to manage paddy straw. In the past four years, we have provided Rs 1,145 crore for 90,000 such subsidised machines," said a source.

The geography of Delhi-NCR makes it especially vulnerable to farm fires. Paddy is not a traditional or appropriate crop in the region where it is currently being raised primarily as a cash crop. “But paddy stalk is an organic material which is of use, maybe not economical for the farmer. And it is here that government authorities must come in and procure the stalk, even at a loss, for human and animal health cannot be compromised,” environmentalist Manoj Misra told IndiaToday.in.

Deep Dive | The new abnormal: Air pollution is not just a winter thing in Delhi anymore

The National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) are buying crop stubble from farmers for power generation and biofuel creation, respectively. This clearly needs to be scaled up. “Farms will need both in-situ and ex-situ measures to add value to straw. Leverage this crisis to build strategic opportunities for green recovery,” Anumita Roy Chowdhury, Executive Director, Research and Advocacy, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), told IndiaToday.in.

Water bodies with water capture a lot of air pollutants which then do not re-enter the atmosphere, unlike the pollutants sitting on the ground or tree tops which a normal sweeping or windy condition can push back into the atmosphere. “Herein lies the opportunity to restore our water bodies that will also address the problem of flooding during monsoon,” Misra said.

DIWALI FIREWORKS

Like in the last two years, the Delhi government has re-imposed a complete ban on the production, sale and use of firecrackers till January 1, including on Diwali which falls in this one-month duration. But enforcement remains an issue. Not only are firecrackers sold, mostly in Delhi’s peripheral areas, they are also burst with impunity on Diwali night.

Also Read | Amid ban on crackers, Delhi traders ask for exemption on green firecrackers

In 2021, Delhi recorded its worst post-Diwali air quality in five years. This year, the situation might not be too different, with groups of citizens again slamming environment activists and even the judges for the cracker ban, saying only Hindu festivals are targeted when there are no studies to suggest that a night of fireworks is responsible for Delhi’s winter pollution.

“All must rise above all kinds of politics including religious and strict ban must be put on any kind of crackers anywhere within Delhi-NCR,” Misra said.

TOO MANY PLANS

So, are authorities not doing anything? They are, but they are mostly planning their plans.

The Delhi government has asked its various departments to submit their air pollution-control ‘plans’ by September 15 so that a 15-point action ‘plan’ can be launched to implement a Graded Response Action ‘Plan’ (GRAP) of the Centre’s Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM).

Delhi Environment Minister Gopal Rai has written to his counterpart at the Centre, Bhupender Yadav, seeking time to discuss and prepare a joint action ‘plan’ to save the national capital from the dangers of winter air pollution.

Initially prepared by the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority or EPCA (now dissolved), GRAP will trigger, from October 1, measures from increasing parking rates to halting construction activity. This will depend on the severity of air pollution levels.

The Delhi government is again talking about the spraying of bio-decomposer in paddy fields to help decompose stubble and prevent farm fires.

QUIET KILLERS

It’s not that nothing has been done. Authorities have shut down many coal-fired power plants, banned old and polluting vehicles and moved to cleaner fuel technologies to a large extent. But quiet killers go under the radar.

While much focus remains on farm fires and Diwali fireworks, dust from construction and demolition activities is a quiet killer. If you visit any area in Delhi, say Dwarka, Shalimar Bagh or Vikaspuri, you will see many lanes full of construction material, and structures being built or demolished.

Halting these works when a public health emergency has been announced helps but why not regulate them round the year instead of going for desperate firefighting? Also, in industrial areas, many small- and medium-sized units are still using dirty fuel.

“You need to incentivise industry by saying those using clean fuel can run. Municipal authorities also need to push more for waste segregation, recycling, reuse and composting. This will also help control waste burning,” said Roy Chowdhury.

If you visit any area in Delhi, say Dwarka, Shalimar Bagh or Vikaspuri, you will see many lanes full of construction material, and structures being built or demolished.

Likewise, Delhi Metro is fine, but the overall public transport sector hasn't been adequately scaled up. That's why we see the astounding traffic volume of private vehicles on roads.

“In short, we need massive clean fuel transition across all sectors, mobility transition (public transport, walking and cycling) to reduce automobile dependence, and a big shift in waste management (segregated collection, reuse, etc.) to reduce waste burning and construction and demolition waste,” she said.

It's also important to adopt the polluter pays principle to change behaviour.

“We need to do creative and strategic thinking. Authorities must ramp up action and identify priority areas for Delhi as well as the National Capital Region (NCR) that includes Uttar Pradesh's Noida and Ghaziabad and Haryana's Gurugram and Faridabad.” This is because air pollution doesn't honour political boundaries.

It must be admitted that Delhi has succeeded in bending the pollution curve. But even after all this Delhi has yet to cut pollution by yet another 60 per cent to meet the clean air standards. “Imagine how ambitious the action needs to be for such deep cuts. This is a lesson for other cities and regions as well,” she said.

THE WAY FORWARD

Misra said winter pollution is a severe health crisis that should have been tackled on a war footing. Anywhere else, the entire region would have been put under an endless state of health emergency till the issue was resolved in its entirety, he said.

“The Centre and states Punjab, Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have failed in their duties. It’s sad that whatever little has been done, has been done only after the Supreme Court started hearing petitions from citizens. A welfare state has repeatedly failed in its Raj Dharma," he said.

He said politics, politicians and their antics aimed at capturing votes while ignoring such a critical subject is distressing. “But I would first blame the Delhi-NCR citizenry, to the last person, for failing to demand a permanent. State authorities can install air purifiers (whatever pollution prevention they might bring) but not the ordinary people.”

"If a national lockdown can be imposed to prevent the spread of Covid, then why not a health emergency announcement?”
- Manoj Misra, Environmentalist

Roy Chowdhury said we must go beyond the reactive emergency action during winter to more deep-rooted round-the-year action to fix the systems, infrastructure, compliance strategy, monitoring, fiscal strategy and institutional capacity in each sector to get the big solution.

“Responsibility for action will have to be fixed at all levels and across all sectors.”

And what if the situation does not improve anytime soon? “See, most vulnerable are children, ailing populace, the elderly and daily-wagers like rickshaw pullers. So, the school holidays must be rejigged to coincide with the most critical winter period (between Dussehra and Christmas) and a special pollution-prevention wage must be provided to daily wagers,” Misra said.

According to Misra, a health emergency must be imposed directing all to stay indoors within the entire Delhi-NCR, once farm fires start in areas surrounding Delhi-NCR. "If a national lockdown can be imposed to prevent the spread of Covid, then why not a health emergency announcement?”

Because, no political or economic correctness can justify a lack of emergency measures, combined with a holistic long-term approach that cuts the governmental red tape, to tackle such a crisis.

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