Pollution policy is gasping for reform

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Published: October 29, 2019 2:24:41 AM

The overall AQI for Delhi reached 463 (PM 2.5) at 11:30 am on Monday, as per data from the Centre-run System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (Safar), while it was 348 as per data from the Central Pollution Control Board, before worsening to 365 at 4 pm.

As a result, all efforts to curb pollution in the NCR seem episodic instead of being systemic. (Representational image)As a result, all efforts to curb pollution in the NCR seem episodic instead of being systemic. (Representational image)

Reports of widespread violation of the Supreme Court’s ban on all crackers other than green crackers and the two-hour (8-10 pm) limit for bursting the latter would help explain the air quality index (AQI) in Delhi worsening to ‘severe’ hours after Diwali. The overall AQI for Delhi reached 463 (PM 2.5) at 11:30 am on Monday, as per data from the Centre-run System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (Safar), while it was 348 as per data from the Central Pollution Control Board, before worsening to 365 at 4 pm. This is a lot better than the post-Diwali AQI last year, which stood at 600-plus; it was 367 in 2017, and 425 in 2016.

Although Safar and CPCB differ, the pollution readings are still alarming. However, the bigger concern, in the long run, is the fact that Central and state governments have failed to get a grip on the problem. As a result, all efforts to curb pollution in the NCR seem episodic instead of being systemic.

There is no doubt that pollution is exacerbated significantly by the bursting of crackers. However, Delhi’s pollution problem in the winters—perhaps worsened by the effects of the temperature dip, which causes pollutants to get trapped closer to the ground than in the warmer months—can’t exclusively be blamed on Diwali. The practice of stubble-burning in neighbouring Haryana and Punjab, with the westerly winds carrying the smoke to the national capital, is another contributing factor, apart from the usual suspects of road and construction dust, vehicular and industrial emissions, etc. The violation of the SC order on crackers is only matched by, perhaps, the fact that hefty fines and schemes to make buying/renting of machines to dispose off crop stubble safely have failed to discourage crop-burning.
Satellite data shows that the incidence of crop-burning in October in Punjab is up sharply from last year; Safar estimated the practice to have contributed nearly a fifth of the PM 2.5 pollution in Delhi on Sunday. Against such a backdrop, how much Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP)—which envisages solutions like the odd-even plan for four-wheelers, temporary bans on construction activity, diesel generator sets, temporary shutting down of brick kilns, stone crushers, a power plant in the national capital, etc—can achieve is debatable. This is, of course, not to say that GRAP shouldn’t be part of the solution. But, any ostrich-like refusal to deal with the failure to stop crop-burning and enforce the cracker ban will ensure Delhi gasps for breath every winter.

To tackle crop-burning, the government must keep pushing mechanised disposal of stubble, both by subsidising renting/buying of machines like the Happy Seeder and imposing heavy fines and other punishment on violators. More important, it must look at how its agriculture policy, especially of price-support and subsidies that largely benefit the farmers in Punjab and Haryana , is encouraging crop-burning, and reform it accordingly. On crackers, enforcing the ban with large fines and other punitive action, and moving to something like community fire-work displays that are the norm in developed nations, could be thought of. Most of all, the Centre and the states must show political willingness to contend with any possible backlash in the interest of the health of citizens in the long-run—respiratory diseases because of pollution are already exacting a huge cost in terms of lost productivity, and healthcare spend.

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