Supreme Court’s decision to ban the sale of crackers in Delhi-NCR ahead of Diwali couldn’t deter most of the residents from bursting crackers after obtaining them through dubious means. Even as this was the least polluting Diwali in the last three years, Delhites woke up to a blanket of smoke on Friday after having a fun night with crackers.
The online indicators of air pollution on Diwali in the region glowed red, indicating a “very poor” air quality, while the volume of ultra fine particulates PM2.5 and PM10, which enter the respiratory system and manage to reach bloodstream, went up sharply after 7 PM on Thursday. According to System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), PM 2.5 in Delhi hit “severe” levels by 11 am on Friday, with a reading of 574 ug/m3, while the PM 10 touched ‘critical levels’ of 517 ug/m3.
The cracker sale ban did have some positive effect on air pollution level in the National Capital Region but this cannot be a permanent solution to the problem. There are many factors that contribute to air pollution in Delhi and surrounding areas. These include smoke from factories in the region, old diesel vehicles, thermal power plants, dust from construction sites and stubble burning by farmers in Punjab and Haryana.
Manage stubble burning pragmatically, not by force
Starting late September and through October, farmers in Punjab and Haryana set their paddy fields on fire in a bid to save cost of transporting the stubble away or putting them through the decomposition process by incorporating them back into the soil.
Last year, stubble burning combined with smoke from fire crackers had almost turned Delhi-NCR into a gas chamber. This year also, there has been only an estimated 10% decline in stubble burning. Member-secretary of Central Pollution Control Board, A Sudhakar, recently told IE that the stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana this year was almost the same as previous. Because of the winds blowing 900 metres and above, the effect has not been as visibly severe as the last year. When the wind blows at 900 metres and above, the fumes don’t get trapped and they are dispersed before reaching Delhi. However, the situation can change in coming days as stubble burning continues despite a ban imposed by the NGT.
Farmers, who are already stressed, cannot afford to spend lakhs on new machines. Punjab government has asked for a Rs 2000-crore package to subsidise farmers.
The Centre needs to take this issue seriously. Incorporating paddy straw into the soil will not only reduce air pollution level but also improve the rapidly deteriorating nutrition level of top soil in the states neighbouring Delhi.
Commercialise crop stubble
There are some other ways also in which the stubble burning situation can be managed. Noted agriculture scientist MS Swaminathan had suggested last year to commercialise the crop straw to help tide over the problem. He had said that paddy straw can be used for making animal feed, cardboard, paper and other products. According to Swaminatham, a technology for using paddy stray as animal feed has been developed in Maharashtra.
It is also possible to use the crop stubble as fuel for electricity generation. There are already a few plants using stubble in Punjab but more are needed. Once commercialised, farmers would have a solid reason to stop stubble burning.
Target other major contributors to pollution on an urgent basis:
As pointed above, the other major contributors are smoke from factories in the region, old diesel vehicles, thermal power plants, dust from construction sites. The government needs to come up with stricter rules for vehicles and builders.
In 2015, Delhi government had come up with a novel odd-even scheme to curb vehicular pollution. Similar scheme needs to be implemented on a regular basis, or may be permanently. Besides, there is also a need to expedite metro projects in Delhi-NCR to reduce people’s dependence on vehicles.