(This is a reprint from NewsBred).
India’s capital Delhi is gasping for breath and the fact that schools have been shut, flights diverted, construction work halted and public health emergency declared should tell a thing or two about the dire air-pollution blanketing world’s second most populous city of 30 million people.
Man and nature outdo each other every winter in producing a gas chamber which irreversibly damages the lungs of millions of children and makes air-pollution the fifth biggest killer of all–bigger than diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure and malnutrition.
The megalopolis lies lower than its surrounding areas which has dust blown in from the deserts (Rajasthan) and smoke from burning farms (Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab) that remains trapped due to stagnant air of cold winter. Tens of thousands of industries on its periphery, snarling trucks with construction materials which inject dust in air and at least 10 million vehicles on its artery of roads further choke the lungs of its residents.
The Air Quality Index (AQI) of Delhi registered a high of 484 this week which is in severe category, way above the 0-100 considered “good” and “satisfactory”. Half of this problem is due to stubble burning of crops in neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana. Yet, twice as trickier is the solution than the problem would appear at first sight.
Every year, after the paddy harvest, farmers are left with stubble which has grown progressively stubborn over the years due to increased use of pesticides and fertilizers. It doesn’t interest cattle. It blunts the cutting instruments. Pulling it out is time and money-consuming. Transporting it further involves expense. With a fresh crop season beckoning, farmers opt for burning the stubble as an easy way out.
India is a federal nation and states and Centre often run at cross-purpose to each other. They haven’t found a way to incentivize the farmers to pull out the stubble and transport it, say to private power producers who in turn could be incentivized to use the stubble and its valuable biomass fuel into renewable electricity. Big players have already invested $42 billion in India’s renewable energy sector since 2014 and could lap up to this opportunity which would end the stubble menace. Thailand took a similar route to tackle rice husk issue and overcame it in five years.
One of the measures being tried by Delhi government presently is odd-even scheme for cars which is odd-numbered cars run on odd dates and even-numbered vehicles on even dates. However, since vehicles measure up to only 2% of the problem, this at best is a band-aid to what is a badly-infected body.
To be sure, Delhi isn’t the only Indian city grappling with clean air issue. Indeed, 22 of world’s 30 most polluted cities are in India. Population is one issue which makes India’s cities highly congested and reduce traffic to a crawl, filling the air with toxic smoke. Nearly 100 million Indians still use fuelwood and biomass cakes for cooking and general heating needs which World Health Organization (WHO) reckons leads to death of 400,000 people each year due to indoor carbon monoxide poisoning. India burns ten times more fuelwood every year than the United States. Most Indian cab drivers use adulterated fuel blends of gasoline and diesel to reduce their gas expenses but at a great cost to environment. India, lest we forget, is also the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, behind China and the United States.
India has woken up late to air-pollution but frankly so did the world–only around the turn of the 21st century. Humanity lived with bad air for centuries before realizing that air pollution is causing unimaginable health disasters. Today it accounts for one in nine deaths worldwide. It kills 7 million people a year, more than HIV, tuberculosis and malaria combined. Every single city in Middle East and Africa exceeds the WHO markers as does 99% of South Asian cities and 89% in East Asia. Even in Europe it accounts for 500,000 deaths per year.
In India, the air pollution act was passed in 1981. Since then India has formed its own National Air Quality Index. This year it has launched the National Clean Air Programme with 20-30 per cent pollution reduction target by 2024. This plan is specifically meant for 102 cities which are considered to have worse air quality than the national standards. After all, life can’t do without breathing.
(This is a reprint from NewsBred).
Pollution in Delhi will be a toxic matter in the assembly elections in next few months. The Capital turns into a toxic gas chamber in winter primarily due to crop stubble burning in north India as polluted air hangs overhead on a surface which is lower than the adjoining regions. Crowded streets with vehicles don’t help as do the open trucks carrying construction materials and blowing dust particles around.
The cost of pollution in the Capital is no longer a secret. The air quality of Delhi and NCR is among the very worst which World Health Organization (WHO) found in its survey of 1600 cities. Air pollution is the fifth largest killer in India costing 1.5 million lives every year. In Delhi, poor air quality damages the lungs of 50 percent or 2.2 million children.
So when the air quality improved by 25 per cent there was no way Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal was going to let go his moment. Every newspaper you flip open you see a full-page ad with Kejriwal in his benign-est smile; like a wolf who has the best of manners before it pounces. Kejriwal is thumping his chest by claiming it’s been due to 24×7 electricity supply which has reduced the usage of generators and heavy fines which he has imposed on construction sites in violation of dust control norms. He has another ace of odd-even scheme for cars next month to make profit of.
Of course Mr Kejriwal is not honest enough to admit the air improvement has largely been due to Delhi’s wind blowing in easterly direction. All this is set to change next week when the wind would start blowing north-westernly. This would bring in the dusty air to the Capital region. Stubble-burning would then bring its weight to bear on Delhi NCR. That the monsoon is still in a retreating mode had also considerably cleared the Capital air. But then monsoon is not here forever—it would go in next few days.
This is not the only noise Kejriwal has made on the pollution front. He has launched an online campaign where he is asking residents to chip in with their suggestions to reduce pollution in the Capital. This is participatory governance, like the one he did in his first term as Delhi chief minister by severing the arrangement with Congress. Then too he had apparently acted on people’s express opinion. Much has flown down the dirty Yamuna in the last few years though.
The regulatory bodies for pollution, like the Supreme Court-mandated Environment Pollution Prevention and Control Authority (EPCA), unfortunately for Kejriwal, are putting out facts as they are. It has told the Delhi administration that 13 hotspots in the Capital need “immediate” attention. Open waste burning and industrial pollution have been identified as two unattended issues. Delhi administration in response has promised it would soon have camera-fitted drones to monitor instances of garbage burning and indusrial emissions in the city. But then promises come easy to politicians.The 13 “dangerous” hotspots for immediate action in the Capital have been identified: It’s Okhla, Narela, Mundka, Dwarka, Punjabi Bagh, Bawana, Wazirpur, Rohini, Vivek Vihar, Anand Vihar, RK Puram, Ashok Vihar and Jahangirpuri.
The truth is Delhi would soon gasp for breath. These advertisements featuring Kejriwal in his best pose would soon disappear. The residents would look for their own options: have masks on face, stay indoors or worse, bring it on. Every year we hear the same noise on crop stubble burning and nothing happens.. There are no plans to educate the masses on their responsibility. All we have is a chameleon of a chief minister beaming at us in the newspapers, claiming credit for 25 per cent reduction in air pollution when the real menace hasn’t even set in. We all have been fooled once by his rehearsed “innocence”, let us not be suckers again.