Smog clouds over Delhi – again

The Indian capital was smothered in smog for much of November, a recurrent situation caused by an excess of ‘particulate matter’ in the air, making life – and breathing – difficult for the city’s 20 million inhabitants. Nicholas Nugent, himself smog-afflicted in southern India, questions why central and state governments have not yet found a way to solve this annual problem

Delhi’s smog clouds appear even more regularly than the country’s yearly monsoons. They emerge at Diwali, the festival of lights in late October, and extend through November, when farmers in the capital’s adjoining states of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh finish harvesting their rice and begin planting wheat. The resulting pollution affects all of north India and is felt most acutely in Delhi and its neighbouring cities.

The timing suggests the causes of the smog may have something to do with the explosion of fireworks at Diwali and the tendency of north Indian farmers to burn away the stubble of one crop before planting the next. Yet this year’s response by the Delhi government was to reintroduce what is known as the ‘odd-even’ restrictions on vehicles entering the capital – those with odd numbered registrations allowed on Delhi’s roads on one day, even numbers the next – with steep penalties for violators.

Allowing for public transport exceptions, this reduced traffic on Delhi’s roads by as much as a third. Nonetheless, the impact on air quality readings this year was relatively slight, probably because ‘three wheelers’ – auto-rickshaws – and ‘two wheelers’, major polluters, were exempt. The damage comes from a high concentration of particulate matter – also known as PM2.5 – present in the air. A safe level is under 60 micrograms per cubic metre, while levels in Delhi and cities in UP and Haryana have reached or exceeded 500 this past month. Above 250 is categorised as ‘severe’.

Air pollution levels this high are equivalent to smoking 25 cigarettes a day

Leading Indian pulmonologist Dr Arvind Kumar says levels this high are equivalent to smoking 25 cigarettes a day. The pollution particularly affects children and the city’s many street dwellers, who have no means of escape. The World Health Organisation implicates such industrial pollution as the cause of as many as 7 million premature deaths a year globally, without specifying how many of these are in India – although it does say that 22 of the world’s most polluted cities are in India.

Mid-crisis, the UN Secretary General, speaking in Bangkok, alluded to another potential cause when he criticised Asian countries for their continuing use of coal to generate electricity and their ongoing investment in coal-fired generators. India burns 12 per cent of all coal consumed globally and, while this is much less than China – which burns a massive 50 per cent of all coal – it is way above the totals for Europe (8 per cent) and North America (9 per cent).

As in previous years the main blame once again was directed at farmers burning stubble, though emissions from Delhi’s 5000 factories are also implicated. An interesting development is how India’s Supreme Court has taken a lead in finding a solution. Last year it banned Diwali fireworks from Delhi and a wide swathe of surrounding territory, damaging the economy of Sivakasi, the town in south India where as many as 800,000 people make most of the country’s fireworks, and triggering a ‘green firework’ industry, which substitutes other chemicals for the pollutant barium nitrate.

This year the court ordered state secretaries to enforce a ban on stubble burning by farmers, which had continued despite earlier rulings. Criticising their failure to enforce court orders, Justice Arun Mishra told the state chiefs, ‘Stubble burning must stop immediately.’ Suggesting the failure to enforce earlier rulings was a violation of the right to life protected by India’s Constitution, he went on: ‘Delhi is choking while the Delhi government and Centre are simply passing the buck. People aren’t safe even inside their houses. This can’t happen in a civilised country.’ He warned them against blaming farmers, saying that state administrations were responsible for enforcing the rules. By the end of November more than 52,000 individual incidents of stubble burning had been reported.

The Supreme Court may have felt it was shouldering responsibility for tackling pollution because of a lack of coordination between the authorities concerned. India’s central government is led by Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, while the Delhi administration is controlled by the Aam Aadmi (Ordinary Man) Party, and Congress rules in Punjab, the state where most of the stubble burning has taken place.

Ordinarily the Supreme Court is accused of exceeding its powers when it orders the central or state governments to take action. But on this occasion it appeared to be the only body doing anything.

There are solutions, according to farming and other experts. While farmers say burning off the rice stubble is the cheapest and quickest way to prepare the ground for the new crop, India has developed technological solutions. Much favoured are the Happy Seeder and Roto Seeder machines, which take up stubble while reseeding, discarding it either to act as mulch or to be sold for commercial use. According to Confederation of Indian Industry expert Chandrajit Banerjee, both machines are ‘equally effective in checking straw burning’.

However, together with the powerful tractor needed to pull such machinery, the purchase costs exceed 8 lakh rupees – more than 11,000 US dollars – putting them beyond the reach of all but the largest farmers, even with government subsidies, given the low margins farmer make on their crops.

Another lobby challenges government policy in subsidising wheat and rice farming to build up large reserves of grain, far more than is needed to feed India’s population. A Times of India editorial railed against what it called an ‘outdated food security doctrine’ that subsidises rapid crop rotation, which began as a buffer stock of rice and wheat but morphed into a policy ‘heavily subsidising farmers to produce excess rice at great economic and environmental cost’.

‘North India’s air pollution woes,’ the editorial went on, ‘are just one manifestation of farm/water policies gone horribly wrong.’ The paper criticised as unnecessary the hurry to prepare the ground for new crops.
While authorities in the north argued over blame and solution, the pollution spread eastward to Kolkata and southwards to Chennai, the two cities where this correspondent was based during November. Climate and air pollution authorities may have discounted any connection with the Delhi smog, but it was little solace for the inhabitants of these two cities to think that what the capital has failed to check over several years could soon threaten all of India.

Nor was it any reassurance when drinking water quality figures, based on 28 parameters including taste and smell, were issued mid-month. While Delhi had the worst quality of piped water, Kolkata and Chennai came second and third. Of India’s largest cities only Mumbai met all parameters for good drinking water.
India clearly has more immediate concerns to tackle than climate change.

Nicholas Nugent, who previously reported on Asia for the BBC, is currently teaching at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, India

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