Delhi pollution: Silence on crop burning a fatal flaw

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Published: December 9, 2016 6:19:45 AM

Given how tackling Delhi’s pollution is a battle to be fought at many fronts—from burning of farm waste in neighbouring states to vehicular pollution—and with varying intensity, the Supreme Court approving the Central Pollution Control Board’s (CPCB) graded response action plan augurs well.

“Reduction of pollution is good for everybody. If we can do it, then the quality of life will be improved significantly. That is where we need to have non-fuel based solar cells as well as a wide variety of energy sources,” (Reuters)The action plan has even retained the odd-even vehicle rationing of the Delhi government in its arsenal against pollution. (Reuters)

Given how tackling Delhi’s pollution is a battle to be fought at many fronts—from burning of farm waste in neighbouring states to vehicular pollution—and with varying intensity, the Supreme Court approving the Central Pollution Control Board’s (CPCB) graded response action plan augurs well. It provides commensurate action based on pollution-level—as per the Air Quality Index classification of pollution as moderate, poor, very poor, and severe—instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, and creates a new pollution level, “emergency” (when PM 2.5 and PM 10 levels shoot past 300 µg/m3 and 500 µg/m3, respectively). The action plan has even retained the odd-even vehicle rationing of the Delhi government in its arsenal against pollution. It recognises the need to have better-coordinated interventions to check pollution in the national capital region (NCR) than seen so far, and hence creates a central level task force with representation from the CPCB, the environment ministry, the Pollution Control Boards of the states parts of whose jurisdictions lie in the NCR, the India Meteorological Department, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, health experts and stakeholders. State-level monitoring at the level of chief secretary—of implementation of the plan—and Union-level coordination of action and enforcement undertaken by states is a good step, too. There will be real-time monitoring of action and effect by state and central control-rooms. The action plan gives the task force the necessary flexibility to contend with problems as they develop— say, on tackling pollution hotspots.

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While there are these and other positives in the action plan, it is a matter of concern that it doesn’t explicitly state any action on stubble/crop-residue burning; more so, when it recognises that pollution is worse in winter than in summer, with the pollution levels sticky at “very poor” and “severe” levels between October 15 and February 15. This seasonal variation has also been discussed in many reports, including the one by the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. It is, therefore, ironic that the action plan recognises that fly-ash’s share in the mix of pollutants rises in summer and mentions specific action to curb it, but fails to pin any responsibility in the case of stubble/crop-burning that, as per the National Environmental Engineering Institute, accounts for 60% of the pollution in the NCR the weeks that lead up to the rabi sowing season. It merely leaves it up to the states neighbouring Delhi—Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh—to curb the practice. Such a gap between intent and action in what is otherwise a prudent plan could undermine all efforts, especially given a rather misplaced focus on steps such as odd-even despite various studies showing that it has limited effect in its existing format.

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