Pollution & Climate Change

Breathing with a burden: The perennial issue of air pollution

The severe deterioration of air quality in the national capital from the end of October 2019 hogged the limelight in newspapers and internet media. Given the poor air quality in Delhi NCR and few other cities in Northern part of India in the last few years and in hindsight, it’s no surprise that the talk of the town is on air quality post Diwali. Being a critical environmental issue, it rapidly took a political turn with Chief Ministers of Delhi, Punjab, Haryana and the Central Government playing the blame game on tackling air pollution with different opinions on stubble burning and claims of maximum action against pollution. The Kejriwal government even ran advertisements in leading newspapers with a claim of 25% reduction in air pollution levels from 2012-14 levels and the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change sent an SMS stating that Delhi experienced the cleanest Diwali since 2016.

As citizens, it is indeed our duty to at least attempt to understand this critical and complex issue. Several studies indicate the sources of air pollution to be transportation, stubble burning, dust from construction activities with waste burning and diesel generator sets aggravating the poor air quality further. Delhi’s present weather conditions (no wind movement, lower temperature) provide perfect conditions for the pollutants to remain in the atmosphere until conditions improve. As stubble burning is being touted as the largest contributor to air pollution, this issue needs further questioning and insights.

Introductionof the rice-wheat cropping system in Punjab and Haryana belt date back to the Green Revolution in India. Government mechanisms like Minimum Support Price and lack of incentive to grow other crops push farmers to continue with the rice-wheat cropping system, thereby abusing groundwater resources. As the window to prepare the land for the wheat cultivation is very narrow, farmers are forced to burn the paddy stubble as it’s the easiest way around. Though the government came up with subsidies for Happy seeder and Super Straw management system, several issues including maintenance costs stand in the way of success. While Haryana has started crop diversification schemes, large-scale success is yet to be met. It should be clear that mere fining of stubble burning instances will not be a long-term feasible solution.  As clearly pointed out by Agricultural Expert Devinder Sharma in his tweet, farmers are on news only for stubble burning!

Moving on to transportation, it is time to acknowledge the need for transition towards public transportation. Though technological advancements have improved engine efficiency, this is offset by the sheer number of vehicles on the road. Instead of constructing new flyovers and highways, we should improve public transport standards. While Delhi has arguably India’s finest metro networks, the sheer inadequacy of buses in Delhi often goes unnoticed. Buses remain the cheapest source of transportation and frequent buses with Air conditioning will be a boon to employees, students and senior citizens. The notion of roads belonging to cars should be broken by empowering pedestrians, cyclists and citizens. The car-free zone of Karol Bagh stands out as an example.

While there’s too much noise on stubble burning, issues such as domestic waste burning, polluting Diesel Generator sets and construction activities go unnoticed. Addressing these issues will definitely improve Delhi’s air quality. While air pollution in Delhi is much discussed and debated, air pollution issues in other Tier I & II cities should also be concentrated. Also, literacy and awareness regarding air pollution is shockingly low even in Delhi. Therefore, schools and governments should take a proactive role in disseminating information on air pollution. These efforts will have long term benefits – including a pollution free Diwali.

In larger picture, we seriously need to rethink the strategy for the country. One is forced to question the notion of economic development when we don’t even have quality air, water and food. A mere increase in economic and GDP growth will never translate to ultimate welfare of citizens. An alternative economic view is must be at the vanguard of our fight against global environmental issues. Thus, it is left to the politicians, bureaucrats and ultimately citizens to understand the pulse of the problem and active in a proactive manner instead of playing blame games. Media should also refrain from blowing up news and should instead concentrate more on disseminating insightful and meaningful messages. The IMoT Agri Forum aims to do just that…

Sathes Kumar K, Executive editor of The Agraria, Young India Fellow at Ashoka University and graduated in Energy and Environmental Engineering.