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Delhi air pollution: Cracker ban, odd-even easy, but no action taken to fix stubble burning, garbage disposal and more

Cracker-ban, odd-even easy but no action to fix stubble burning, more buses, using clean fuels, garbage disposal.

Cracker-ban, odd-even easy but no action to fix stubble burning, more buses, using clean fuels, garbage disposal. (Image: IE)

If Delhi’s air is far more poisonous than it was on Diwali, it is because cracker bans of the type imposed by the Supreme Court last month, the odd-even that Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal wants to start from Monday, or the Supreme Court ban on 2,000cc+ diesel engines two years ago, are nothing but knee-jerk responses to a problem the government—the Centre and the ones in Punjab, Haryana and UP—refuses to do anything about.  Certainly the cracker-ban helped reduce the pollution for a few days, and odd-even would look effective if the wind speeds picked up enough to disburse the pollutants—to that extent, opposition to them looks churlish, but they are more about optics than anything else. While vehicles contribute 9% to Delhi’s PM10 problem, four-wheelers account for 10% of this, two-wheelers 33% and trucks 46%—but two-wheelers are outside the odd-even ban. And despite it being an obvious polluter, why wasn’t the Badarpur power plant in the capital shut down years ago?

With 23 million tonnes of rice straw already burned in Punjab, Haryana and western UP over the past few weeks, and another 11 million waiting to go the same way, it is always obvious this add enormously to the poison in Delhi’s air. Yet, it is only now that Kejriwal is asking the chief ministers of states like Punjab to sit together and come to a solution. To be fair to Kejriwal, though the problem of stubble burning is an old one, no government has done anything about it — it is only now that the Punjab chief minister is talking of the need for central funds for this. Former agriculture secretary Siraj Hussain points to the fact, in an article in  theprint, that with the time between harvesting of paddy and sowing of wheat just 15-20 days, farmers prefer to burn the paddy straw. His solution is to use ‘happy seeder machines’ to allow farmers to sow wheat without needing to remove the paddy stubble.

Bharat Krishak Samaj chairman Ajay Vir Jakhar makes the point, also in theprint, that the government could use MGNREGA to pay for labour to clear the straw or even use Super Straw Management Systems to shred and spread the straw along with a happy seeder—since all of this costs money, surely the central government needed to look at ways to provide this? More important, Jakhar argues that if the Centre did procurement of maize, or allowed production of ethanol from maize, there would be large diversification away from paddy—this would reduce stubble burning and also save Punjab’s water table but, once again, there has been no action along these lines.  In other words, bad policy has a serious impact in more than just one area. Indeed, while the Supreme Court saw fit to ban diesel engines of more than 2000 cc two years ago, it paid little attention to the fact that smaller ones comprised 70-80% of the capital’s diesel fleet; and if diesel is so polluting, why has nothing been done about the fact that apart from the centre charging lower excise on diesel as compared to petrol, all states charge a much lower VAT?

Centre for Science and Environment director-general Sunita Narain points to the fact, in Business Standard, that while natural gas is left out of GST, dirty fuels like petcoke are in and get a full refund of levies—it is no surprise then that India imported 14 mn tonnes of it in FY17 from countries like the US which have banned it due to pollution concerns. Narain points to the fact that Delhi has not added a single bus over the last few years despite public transport being the most obvious answer to automobile pollution—instead of building more bus corridors, Kejriwal demolished the only one the capital had. Apart from the fact that Delhi has not added the mechanical sweepers Kejriwal promised—road dust accounts for 56% of Delhi’s PM10 pollution—as Narain points out, if most roads are dug up, how can this help? The capital has huge garbage fires in dumps, and it gets burned anyway if there is no dump—yet, there has been no comprehensive solution for segregating and processing waste.

Sadly, instead of looking for serious solutions to the capital’s poisonous air, the Centre and the state governments remain locked in a never-ending battle over who actually controls Delhi—till that is settled, little will move in terms of what the Delhi government needs to do; as for the Centre’s job in attacking the causes of the stubble burning, it is clear precious little is happening. So, in a few weeks, if the winds pick up enough to spread the pollutants, the concern over the poisonous air will also dissipate and it will be back to business-as-usual. Till Diwali next year when, as in the past, both concern and finger-pointing will resurface.

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