As the winter sets in, it is not uncommon for the Delhities to feel the chill. Delhities are used to extreme winter. But in the last few years, Delhi and several other North Indian states have been experiencing dense smog and pollution which in a way paralyses normal life. Further, US based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has warned that cities in north India and Pakistan will continue to experience dangerous level of smog-filled pollution over the next several months as the region. It is time for the government to act swiftly to prevent this massive public health emergency.
Delhi’s fight against poisonous air at the start of a chilly winter has already witnessed high drama with little hope for its residents – at least in the coming months – that the sparring state governments of Delhi, Haryana, UP and Punjab will find a lasting solution before 2018.
As Delhi and several other North Indian states intermittently experience dense smog, the authorities in the Capital enforced emergency measures such as banning construction activities and brick kilns, sprinkling of water on trees and from atop high-rise buildings and raising parking rates by 4 times to discourage use of private vehicles and popularising public transport.
The Capital experienced a crisis which forced 4,000 primary schools to be forced shut for four-days due to toxic air and almost every form of transportation facing delays and contributing to significant economic losses.
The Arvind Kejriwal government’s proposal to re-introduce the odd-even road rationing scheme, with exemptions for women and two-wheelers, was shot down by the NGT, which asked the government to explore the 40-odd other anti-pollution measures rather than relying on the “emergency” step of odd-even scheme.
A bitter verbal duel continued with the AAP government led by Arvind Kejriwal blaming Haryana and Punjab for not doing enough to prevent burning of the crop residue in farms, a farm practice that sends toxic fumes towards Delhi, but these two states shot back at him to do his bit rather than blame others.
A meeting between Kerjriwal and Haryana CM M L Khattar, finally, took place and the two decided to collectively fight the menace. Haryana agreed to switch its inter-state bus fleet to CNG and also speed up the construction of the Western Peripheral road which will help divert trucks before entering Delhi from Kondli border on the north and take them to Manesar and Palwal, directly for their South and West bound journey.
In 2018 November, the city government is expecting the arrival of 2,000 new CNG buses for strengthening Delhi’s public transport and additional electric buses for last mile connectivity from Metro stations.
The Supreme Court-mandated EPCA has asked the city government to consider hiking the parking charges to restrain private vehicles during graded response action plan (GRAP) that kicks in as an “emergency” measure during deteriorating air quality.
The EPCA chairman Bhure Lal claimed that 15-20 per cent dip in pollution was recorded due to the implementation of GRAP which forced close brick kilns, stone crushers and hot mix plants. The Supreme Court has already reiterated its ban on use of petcoke in furnaces of factories in national capital region.
Bhure Lal hit out at the fighting among state governments and said a permanent solution is “possible through collaborative action and building an atmosphere of trust and collegial working”. “We cannot allow our children to grow up in this environment where doctors are now saying that the size of lungs is reducing because of pollution. But as I said, finger-pointing will not suffice. Action will,” said Bhure Lal.
In mid-November, the real time Air Quality Index (AQI) climbed to 612 – “hazardous” level – in central Delhi and continued to climb steadily. The Indian Medical Association termed it a “medical emergency”. The IMA sought the cancellation of the Delhi Half Marathon due to bad air, however, a light drizzle two days before the even saved it from cancellation and it went on smoothly on November 19.
In North-west India, rice residue amounts to nearly 33.9 million tonnes and sustainably disposing it in the short window of two weeks before the next crop is a daunting task that requires labour, time and capital. Thus, the farmers’ quick fix solution of burning the rice crop residue gains popularity that causes smog in Delhi and neighbouring areas. Farmers do not have the resources to dispose of crop residue in an environment friendly manner.
Experts suggest that the most common practice of utilising rice residue is to generate electricity, produce bio-oil and on-farm use such as composting. A reliable technology to tackle the stubble is Happy Seeder, a tractor mounted implement that acts as a no-till seeder. It deposits the mulched rice residue around the seed in a simple operation.
Considering that crop residue burning contributes to 25% of Delhi’s air pollution in winter, the Happy Seeder’s use by Punjab and Haryana farmers biggest seems to be the biggest hope for Delhi. Experts suggest incentivising the use of Happy Seeder in farms to replace the practice of burning the stuble. Meanwhile, the US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has warned that smog-filled cities in north India will continue to experience dangerous level of air quality over the next several months, turning them into dangerously unhealthy "snow globes".
"This is just the start to the smog season in northern India, as the monsoon will last for much of the upcoming winter. That means there are plenty of more opportunities for cold, stagnant air to fill with pollution, turning cities into dangerously unhealthy snow globes," the NOAA said.
Referring to satellite images, NOAA said the widespread burning of crop fields in northern India contributed to dangerous levels of air pollution in cities across northern India.
At the US Embassy in New Delhi, hourly AQI values for PM2.5 taken between November 7 and 10 exceeded 500 with an astounding recording of 1010 at 4 pm local time on November 8. Hourly readings still peaked in the Hazardous category (301-500 AQI) through November 14, it said. NOAA released satellite pictures and explained the reasons behind such a polluting atmosphere in major parts of north India. Widespread smog caused by the combustion of fuels and the burning of crops and fires made it dangerous to be outside in cities in northern India, it said.
Adding to the embarrassment of the central government and Delhi administration, an organisation of diplomats based in the city petitioned the foreign ministry over the deteriorating air quality. Dean of Diplomatic Corps, Frank Hans Dannenberg Castellanos, said that MEA’s chief of protocol has taken note of the “concerns of diplomats assigned to Delhi and their families over the current environmental condition in our city”.
The Capital’s air threatens to dip to poisonous levels due to multiple causes, most of which are indeed domestic, dust storms and western disturbances may also continue to have a bearing. As pointed out by the Supreme Court, a peace-meal approach is unlikely to set things in order. What is needed is a national contingency plan to tackle foul air. In the absence of results, people, especially those with respiratory ailments, will be forced to migrate out of the “gas chamber” like Capital.
Famous TV personality and producer of a food show, Mayur Sharma, is one of those who have broken ties with polluted Delhi and shifted base to Goa. It hurts to leave a city with which one has bonded for over 40 years but when it comes to safeguarding the future of our next generation, such hard decisions take precedence, he says.
The collective battle to keep toxic air out of Delhi seems to be a long drawn battle. With Cities like Beijing and Seoul having battled such crisis successfully, there is no reason why Delhi and its neighbouring areas cannot do the same. All that is needed is commitment of the government agencies and social contributions with individuals giving up luxuries of private transport and doing their bit to promote less-polluting modes of public transport. The real challenge lies in moulding public minds for sacrifice for the common good – something which Delhiites are not very good at.