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Delhi pollution: Stubble burning returns to haunt festive season

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Even as the national capital is enveloped by smoke from stubble burning in the surrounding states, its government has initiated a number of steps to curb it. Will they succeed and lead to cleaner air?

By Abhilash Kumar Singh

Delhi and its satellite cities are once again facing the menace of air pollution. The conditions have gone from poor to hazardous as Punjab and Haryana record higher stubble burning incidents this season as compared to last year. In the first two weeks of October 2020, Delhi’s air quality index (AQI) was worse than in the same period in 2018 and 2019, according to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

Several factors lead to a drop in air quality transport emissions, biomass and waste burning, dust, industries and power plants. Of these, stubble burning in neighbouring states, including Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, is considered to be the major reason for hazy skies during winter in Delhi.

Apart from the aforesaid factors, there is one more reason for the present situation and that is lack of centre state coordination. The Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, in its research based on data for 2018 and 2019, has found that Delhi’s pollution is localised and not caused by farm fires. It said that the AQI for Punjab is much better than in Delhi.

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh pointed out that this is something the state had been maintaining for the past several years. Singh reportedly said: “It was obvious that Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, who had been blaming Punjab’s farm fires for the poor AQI levels in the national capital for the past several years, was taking refuge in brazen falsehoods to divert public attention from the AAP government’s total failure to control the environmental situation in Delhi.”

Kejriwal, on the other hand, blamed the centre and the Haryana and Punjab governments for the severe air pollution, alleging that they had failed to do anything despite the all out efforts by the AAP government. “The pollution was in control in Delhi throughout the year, but this time (winters) every year, Delhi has to face severe pollution due to the centre, BJP led Haryana and Congress led Punjab governments. Despite our all out efforts, they are not ready to do anything. Farmers of these two states are also fed up with their governments,” Kejriwal had tweeted on October 19.

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In an effort to enhance the air quality, the Delhi government has started a series of events. One is a “green war room” at the Delhi Secretariat to monitor pollution levels in the city. A 10-member team has been set up to monitor the level of primary pollutants. Another is the “Red light on, Gaadi off” campaign that will encourage people to switch off the engines of their vehicles while they wait at traffic signals. The third initiative is a tree transplantation policy. This requires a minimum of 80 percent of trees affected by construction or development projects to be transplanted. A dedicated Tree Transplantation Cell and local committees will be formed, which will include government officials, citizens and RWAs to monitor the transplanted trees and the transplantation task.

The Delhi government has identified 13 major hotspots where an “area specific” action plan will be executed. The areas are Okhla Phase-II, Dwarka, Ashok Vihar, Bawana, Narela, Mundka, Punjabi Bagh, Wazirpur, Rohini, Vivek Vihar, Anand Vihar, RK Puram and Jahangirpuri all classified as hotspots by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) and the CPCB last year based on high particulate matter concentration.

The Delhi cabinet has also approved a proposal to install a smog tower in Connaught Place to deal with air pollution. The government has sanctioned Rs 20 crore, and the tower will come up in 10 months, Kejriwal said, claiming that it will be the first of its kind in the world. There is also a move to shut down thermal plants. The AAP government has written a letter to the Supreme Court mandated Environment Pollution Prevention and Control Authority and the CPCB requesting these agencies to shut down all the 11 thermal power plants in the National Capital Region.

In 2015, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had prohibited the burning of paddy straw while directing the government to help farmers manage the straw using specialised equipment like Happy Seeder. The machine chops the paddy straw, sows wheat seeds and layers the straw as mulch.

When India Legal asked Chandra Bhushan, CEO of iForest, a non-profit environmental research and innovation organisation, about these new initiatives, he said that switching off vehicles at traffic signals or installing smog towers were not enough to fight the toxic air. “There are three stages of emission of pollutant gas from a vehicle. It becomes the highest when a car’s engine is turned on. So a vehicle needs to be stopped for at least three minutes. In India, biomass coal and solid burning comprise 85 percent and the rest is liquid or gas.

But the authorities have taken 85 percent action on liquid or gas and the rest on biomass burning,” he said. Bhushan added that instead of spending money on smog towers, the government could provide LPG to the households which use biomass or electric heaters to those who burn waste to warm themselves. Anumita Roychowdhury of the Centre for Science and Environment told India Legal: “The first step to curb crop burning is to find uses for the stubble.”

India relies on the northern states of Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand for wheat. States in the south use combine harvesters too. But the clinching difference is that they don’t have the urgency to remove the stubble to make it ready for the next crop. To sow wheat right after paddy, the field has to be harvested and readied for the next crop.

In the Punjab-Haryana-UP belt, the crucial time for the wheat crop to mature is in mid-April, when the temperature is about to cross 35 degrees Celsius. For the wheat crop to reach full maturity and give maximum yield by then, the farmer has no option but to sow the crop latest by November 15 so that it grows for a full duration of 140-150 days. Therefore, farmers have little choice but to burn the stubble, given the pressure under which they have to sow the next crop.

Recently, to tackle these problems, a three-judge bench of the apex court appointed retired judge Madan B Lokur to lead a committee monitoring the stubble burning issue in Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in view of rising pollution levels in Delhi. The Court directed all authorities in the states and the Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority to report to the Justice Lokur led committee regarding the issue. It added that groups such as Bharat Scouts and Guides and National Cadet Corps could be deployed to carry out physical surveillance of fields where stubble burning was likely to happen. The Court also highlighted that Punjab and Haryana have taken adequate steps to control stubble burning, but more preventive steps were needed. The two states in their submissions contended that they had developed a mobile app that would help identify and notify the field where stubble burning took place.

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Till date, many initiatives have been taken by the concerned states, the centre, the Supreme Court, High Courts and NGT, but no effective solution has been found. However, the blame game continues. No wonder Kejriwal recently said: “All governments should come together and launch a joint war against air pollution. If all governments and all parties come together, leaving politics aside, we can control pollution in less than four years.” He called for Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar to hold meetings with the chief ministers of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab every month till the problems due to stubble burning are solved. “There should be sharp timelines to move away from stubble burning to check air pollution in Delhi-NCR,” he added.

Meanwhile, Delhiites would do well to protect themselves from the bad air by wearing masks and not venturing out too much. 

—The writer is an Advocate, Supreme Court

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