Delhi turns gas chamber again but AAP government in Punjab gives hope

New agricultural practices and technologies can be adopted for high yield with comparatively less stubble

By Manas Ranjan Senapati
Published: Tuesday 15 November 2022

The Delhi smog has become a yearly phenomenon since 2017, after the famous smog episodes in Los Angeles (1943) and London (1952).

The air quality index (AQI) of Delhi drastically deteriorates to ‘Poor’ (201–300), ‘Very Poor’ (301–400), ‘Severe’ (401–500) or ‘Hazardous’ (500+) levels during the months of October-February. Factors contributing to this include stubble burning, road dust, vehicle pollution and cold weather. 

Again this year, the AQI of Delhi and NCR reached 418 in the ‘severe’ category. The levels of PM2.5 and PM10 hit 999 micrograms per cubic meter, while the safe limits for those pollutants are 60 and 100 respectively. 

Delhi's pollution is also caused by agriculture, as smog and other harmful particles are produced by farmers burning their crops (stubble burning) in the neighbouring states like Punjab and Haryana. 

Punjab is called the ‘granary of India’ or India's bread-basket. Rice and wheat are the two main crops grown in Punjab. Post-harvest stubble burning is a significant contributor to atmospheric pollution, followed by industrial and vehicular emissions. 

In Asian countries such as China, around 60 per cent of total biomass emissions come from stubble burning. In Delhi, stubble burning accounts for up to 45 per cent of air pollution. 

Stubble burning is equally detrimental to the soil’s health, stripping it of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium essential for plants. 

It raises soil temperature nearly to about 42 degrees Celsius, thus displacing or killing important microorganisms up to a depth of about 2.5 centimetres. This, in turn, hampers agriculture productivity.

The ground-level ozone produced by stubble burning affects the plant’s metabolism. It penetrates into its leaves and destroys them, causing severe damage to crops in the northern parts of India. 

For paddy and wheat, the stubble generated is 1.5 times the grain and therefore, waste management is a challenge in Punjab and Haryana. With only 10-15 days between paddy-harvesting and wheat-sowing seasons, farmers are forced to eliminate paddy stubble quickly by burning.

Stubble burning was considered an offence under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code and also according to the Air and Pollution Control Act, 1981. The enforcement of the ban has, however, been weak, largely due to inadequate political will.  

New agricultural practices and technologies can be adopted for high yield with comparatively less stubble. Advanced technologies are also available to produce biofuel, ethanol, paper or coal (green coal) from agricultural waste or stubble. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi is focusing on such technologies to combat air pollution in Delhi. 

The AAP government in Delhi has taken several praiseworthy steps to reduce the level of air pollution in the city during the last few years, like the odd-even formula, banning diesel generators, water sprinkling, vacuum cleaning, installing smog towers and lockdowns. 

The government efforts alone are not enough in this regard. Participation of the community is crucial in order to bring about a palpable change in the reduction of pollution. 

Delhi was found to be the most polluted capital in the world and 21 of the 30 cities with the worst air quality were in India, according to a new report. 

The health effects of air pollution are serious: A third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution. Nine out of 10 people now breathe polluted air, which kills seven million every year. 

It has become a regular practice in Delhi to declare winter break every year for schools to protect children from the prevailing air pollution. 

The states initially engaged in blame game, finding no solution on this issue. Now, both Delhi and Punjab have the AAP government. So, it seems that the Delhi air pollution can find a permanent solution maintaining a balance in between environment and agriculture.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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