Be­yond the Smoke And the Stub­ble

Ev­ery­one needs to chip in and fo­cus on year-round so­lu­tions, says Urmi A Goswami

The Economic Times - - Environment & Companies -

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.

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