Beyond the Smoke And the Stubble
Everyone needs to chip in and focus on year-round solutions, says Urmi A Goswami
This year, when the denizens of the nation’s capital woke up to a smog-encased city the morning after Diwali, it was different in a way – the pollution readings had virtually broken the scale, pushing the air quality to “emergency” levels.
After complaining about high levels of pollution in the city caused by the open burning of crop stubble by farmers in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh for almost three weeks, this time around they had no one but themselves to blame. The overwhelming view was that the Supreme Court’s partial ban on firecrackers had failed. The unavailability of “green” firecrackers, which are 25% to 30% less polluting, added to the problem. An analysis by The Energ y and Resources Institute revealed that the day before Diwali, pollution in New Delhi dipped appreciably – the levels were lower than those on the pre-Diwali evening and night of 2017. This was attributed to the complete ban on bursting firecrackers ordered by the apex court.
However, there was a spike in pollution after 5 pm on Diwali and in the 8 pm to 10 pm slot set by the court. Pollution levels peaked at about 1,000 micrograms per cubic metre (μg/cu m). The amount of firecrackers burst in that time far exceeded the amount burst in the same period in previous years. Urban Emissions, a research outfit tracking air quality, estimates that about 5,000 tonnes of crackers were burst, the same amount as in 2017. The result was almost 150,000 kg of PM 2.5 in the air. In addition, the time restriction was not observed.
TO BAN OR NOT TO BAN
It appeared that as long as there was a complete ban, pollution levels – although still high – could be checked. Once the restrictions were relaxed, the situation changed completely. Is a complete ban the way forward? Arunabha Ghosh, CEO of the New Delhi-based Council for Environment, Energy and Water, said bans won’t work. “What you had in Delhi was mass uncivil disobedience. People would have burst firecrackers even if there was a complete ban. No amount of enforcement can prevent this from happening,” Ghosh said.
A total ban is difficult to enforce and the manpower for that kind of an effort doesn’t exist and is even impractical to organise. “It would require more patrolling during Diwali and ensuring that would be difficult,” said Ajay Mathur, director general of TERI.
Ultimately, it is a matter of choice by the people, taking into account the realities of one’s location. “If you live in London, you can’t play Holi the same way you celebrate Holi in India because it is cold. So you adapt and use dry colours,” Ghosh explained. “Similarly, Delhi-ites need to recognise the realities of their location, the combination of temperature Forecast for PM 2.5 in Delhi on Saturday inversion and the pre-existing high pollution levels that make the bursting of firecrackers into an air emergency.”
Mathur offers an alternative that could strike a balance between the desire to celebrate Diwali with firecrackers and controlling pollution levels.
The first step, he said, is to ensure that only firecrackers that are certified “green” are available. These lesspolluting crackers are still not available for commercial sale. But people could burst more “green” firecrackers as they are less harmful. Mathur said, “the personal use of firecrackers has to be banned.”
He suggests bursting firecrackers be made a community activity, by issuing permits and setting limits on the amount of crackers than can be bought and burst, based on the amount of pollution that can be allowed without tipping the air quality to dangerous levels.
OPEN BURNING OF CROP STUBBLE
Before the current Diwali-induced spike, open burning of paddy stubble in the neighbouring states of Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh was seen as the major driver of poor air quality in the National Capital Region. Agricultural stubble burning has been comparatively lower than previous years. Experts attributed this to the impact of policy measures to reduce crop burning.
TERI studied fires – agricultural and waste-dumps – in the 400 square kilometre area around New Delhi between October 1 and November 5 and found a 30% reduction in burning from the same period last year. According to the analysis, “There is good correlation between number of fires and PM 2.5 pollution levels in Delhi.” As a result, the average pollution level in Delhi during this period was 155 μg/cu m in 2018 compared with 175 μg/ cu m in 2017. Still, PM 2.5 levels are way above the permissible 60 μg/cu m.
Resolving the problem of crop burning will require more than penalties and subsidies. It will require a major transition, a shift to other crops. Ghosh explained that the problem of crop stubble burning is related to cultivation of “certain varieties of paddy, not native to the region.” These varieties have shortened the harvesting season, making the window of clearing stubble a challenge. “The paddy stubble has silica, making it unsuitable for fodder,” he explained. Burning, then, seems the simplest way.
Shifting to other crops will require more than approaching the problem through the lens of pollution. It will require acknowledging the nexus of land, water and air related issues and getting different actors to come together to create the pathway for a transition. It will, as some experts put it, revisit the political economy of the farm sector.
BEYOND STRAW MEN
While firecrackers made a bad situation worse, experts stress on the need to focus beyond the seasonal episodes of high pollution to address year-round sources. “Air pollution is not a seasonal allergy issue,” said Ghosh. There is a need to realise that it affects billions of dollars of investment and, most importantly, it is a public health issue. “Air pollution is now a bigger public health concern than diarrhoea.”
Thus far, the approach has been to focus on spikes in pollution levels, which are driven by various factors. One reason for this approach has been implementation New Delhi: National capital Delhi faces another burst of hazardous pollution with a heavy mass of cold air approaching the city while increasing moisture is raising the atmosphere’s capacity to carry toxins and weather scientists have forecast foggy weather on Saturday. Making matters worse is the slowdown in wind speed, adding to the prospects of more contaminated air that had improved on Friday but is forecast to remain in the “severe” category.
“Delhi Air Quality has improved significantly since yesterday but the recovery is slow due to low surface wind speed and it continued to be in severe category,” Safar, the monitoring system of Punebased Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, said on Friday.
Shallow fog is expected in the early hours of Saturday, with visibility up to 500-700 metres, but it will improve through the day. Wind speed, currently at 4-5 kmph, is expected to pick up around Monday night, said an official from the India Meteorological Department (IMD).
“We are expecting air quality in Delhi to improve around November 13-14 as wind speeds will pick up, helping in dispersal of pollutants,” Kuldeep Srivastava, Scientist at IMD, told ET on Friday. Wind speed is expected to improve to around 10-15 kmph.
“We are also expecting cloudiness and light showers around this time in Delhi-NCR, owing to a western disturbance, which will help in considerable improvement of air quality,” Srivastava said. Western disturbance is a weather system associated with rainfall in the northern part of the country.
Hazardous microparticles PM 2.5 and PM 10 remained at “severe” levels of 440 and 303 micrograms per cubic metre of air respectively on Friday, according to Safar. Overall air quality in Delhi on Friday was measured at 453. —Nishtha Saluja
and enforcement weaknesses, resulting in governments and local administrations focusing on observable issues. This strategy is no longer viable, given the levels of air pollution. “Background numbers need to be controlled, but episodes are what drive public opinion,” said Mathur.
This approach has to change. It will require an assessment of enforcement capabilities of different agencies, focusing on year-round solutions, constant messaging on the issue and not just during emergency situations, developing solutions commensurate to enforcement capabilities and enhancing these capacities. Finally, policy interventions based on empirical evidence to augment these efforts. “We are somehow immune to understanding evidence,” said Ghosh. That has to change. “It is not acceptable to have an air quality index of 300. That realisation has to set in.”
While steps have to be taken on multiple fronts – not just reducing the amount of crackers or improving their quality – improving air quality will require everyone to pitch in.