The present levels of ‘smog’ and air pollution can only be addressed on a “Holistic” basis in cooperative and constructive manner at political level – Central Government in conjunction with the State governments of Punjab, Haryana, UP, Rajasthan and Delhi.
It is unfortunate that political leaders and their spokespersons are shouting hoarse and indulging in blame games over the air pollution not only in Delhi but also in the Indo-Gangetic plain to include Punjab-Haryana-Western UP and even Pakistan’s Punjab. Scaremongering does not augur well for Delhi and its surrounding regions. After all, winter season is the best tourist season for foreigners to tour India. American media headlines include: “Public Health Emergency declared in Delhi; and United Airlines suspended its flight Delhi.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) Delhi was the most polluted city in the world in 2014. In 2016 WHO downgraded Delhi to eleventh-worst in the urban air quality database. According to one estimate, air pollution causes the death of about 10,500 people in Delhi every year.
Consequent to blame games, tourism arrivals in Delhi will decline dramatically which would have adverse impact on local economy. Majority are well aware of the complex mix of pollution from human activities (vehicle emissions, industry, construction, residential fuel burning, carbon dioxide emissions from green cover, domestic use of air conditioners refrigerators, industrial emissions, thermal power station) as well as natural sources like dust and sea salt. Furthermore, meteorological conditions in the winter - cool air causes “inversions” that stagnant the air and trap pollution close to the ground. Air flow patterns from Afghanistan and Pakistan pick up emissions as they move over the densely urbanized regions of Punjab and Haryana where farmers burn the straw in their fields and pull this pollution into Delhi. Pre-monsoon dust storms also contribute to air pollution in the region.
Causes of air pollution
Additionally NCR generates 10,000 tons per day of municipal solid waste, much of which is eventually burned, adding particulate pollution to the air besides galloping construction projects and industries. In addition, Delhi has more than 7.4 million vehicles on its roads, with an additional 1,200 added each day and the result is a pollution “hotspot.”
“Delhi’s Gas Chamber” phenomena is nothing new but building up since early 1970s. If it was within tolerable limits, it may be attributed to lower population density of people and vehicles besides industries, real estate and infrastructure developments in the NCR region. Most importantly, the root cause is the galloping increase in NCR population from barely 35 lakhs to nearly 20 crores. Scientists and environmental experts should not forget that gases are also released from the body processes of living beings (carbon dioxide during respiration). Even cattle release methane during digestion.
Similarly, population of vehicles multiplies many times more. So also, the piling of garbage particularly dumping and burning increased phenomenally. Also, natural sources of pollution include dust carried by the wind from locations with very little or no green cover, ie, from the Thar desert.
The primary fault lies with successive governments for very poor urban planning for the national capital. In reality, large industrial parks were developed adjoining Delhi in Faridabad, Gurgaon, and Noida areas on the outskirts with utter disregard to implementing strict pollution controls. Thus, the present state of “Delhi Gas Chamber” was developed over the past 5 decades by successive governments. Even people colluded in creating the present mess. Be that as it may, the causes of air pollution are quite numerous to include: sulfur dioxide emitted from the combustion of fossil fuels like coal, petroleum and other factory combustibles; hazardous gases emitted by ammonia used extensively in agriculture, besides insecticides, pesticides and fertilizers; release of large amounts of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, organic compounds, and chemicals into the air by industries; and mining operations.
Time to Wake up
Wake up Delhites! Do not allow politicians cry hoarse year after year over seasonal air pollution over Indo-Gangetic Plain due to reasons documented in the past many years. Yet, none of the past regimes have taken appropriate pro-active actions to mitigate the menace of air pollution. Instead of addressing the issue in a holistic manner, Arvind Kejriwal, Chief Minister of New Delhi (known as Muffler Man), first played to the gallery by imposing “Odd-Even” rule for vehicle usage. After 2 years, now he is voicing his concern about “stubble burning” in Punjab and Haryana.
As per media reports, 20% of air pollution over Delhi is due to stubble burning from agricultural lands of neighboring states. What about the rest of 80%? Is there a remedy available that is indigenous? So what if labor is not available for cutting “stubble”? Is indigenous technologyavailable at affordable costs to cut and compress crop residues into bales for use as animal feed?
In the past, wood or coal burning to keep warmth by poor people was quite common. Wood smoke contains higher amounts of particulate pollution than smoke from oil- or gas-fired furnaces. Most importantly, one must add the fallout of improved ‘life styles’ in urban households like air conditioners, refrigerators, cleaning products, paints etc. Surely, uncontrolled cracker burning during the Diwali celebrations is yet another cause that contributes to the pike or surge in air pollution under the very nose of those VVIPs celebrating the festival in “Ramlila” grounds. What about burning of crackers during the season of marriages and elections? Surely, all such ‘rich mans’ extravaganza must be banned if one is earnest in controlling air pollution in Delhi.
Add to them, use of “plastic’ bags and their disposal by burning least realizing that they produce toxic fumes over long period contributing to air pollution. Thus, people are the primary or root cause of Delhi turning into “Gas Chamber” status.
Solutions in sight
“Hay/stubble” - grass, legumes, or other herbaceous plants - can be profitably used for a variety of purposes like as animal fodder, particularly for grazing animals such as cattle, horses, goats, and sheep. Furthermore, there are varieties of methods to convert crop residues into compost and gardening etc. Also, handicrafts are also produced. Burning “Hay/stubble” is as good as burning money. Quite often in past, media reports had been highlighting the plight of animals in “Drought Affected” areas. Also, one can see animals eating paper and plastic in cities. Several types of indigenous farm machinery (Hay Baler) is available at costs varying between Rs.2 to 11 lakhs to cut, collect and compress crops (hay, cotton, flax straw, salt marsh hay, or silage) into compact bales.
The most common type of baler today is the round baler. It produces cylinder-shaped "round" or "rolled" bales. Yet another high value addition usage of “Stubble/Hay” is to convert it into organic compost for agriculture and domestic gardening usage by three methods like aerobic (use oxygen and bacteria), anaerobic (natural process in landfills – not recommended as it produces bad smell) and windrow composting (efficient). Farmers, who use high-cost “Harvesters” farm machinery, can also use low-cost baler machinery to avoid “stubble burning”. If the input-costs increase on account of balers use, then the fixation of MSP (Minimum Support Price) must be increased proportionately. Also, “baler equipment’ should be made available at subsidized rates.
Municipal waste – garbage – can also be profitably to produce both compost manure and even energy. Waste-to-Energy, also widely recognized by its acronym WtE is the generation of energy in the form of heat or electricity from waste. (The process is also called Energy from waste to EfW). Using developing technology, these various methods aim to compress and dispose waste, while attempting the generation of energy from them. People should be encouraged to use public transport (green vehicles, metro rail etc). For those using own vehicles, parking charges must be enhanced to dissuade them from using own vehicles.
Finally, I strongly believe that the levels of ‘smog’ and air pollution can only be addressed on a “Holistic” basis in cooperative and constructive manner at political level – Central Government in conjunction with the State governments of Punjab, Haryana, UP, Rajasthan and Delhi. Policies and strategies to mitigate or reduce pollution levels must not only be formulated but implemented effectively including construction activities and vehicle explosion. Otherwise, there would be no end to repetitive annual political blame games and scaremongering adversely damaging the image of Delhi as a tourist attraction and economy besides human losses and healthcare costs.