Cracker bans look good but don’t address the real issues
The Supreme Court ruling on the bursting of firecrackers, on the face of it, looks progressive. SC has ordered that, across the nation, only ‘green firecrackers’, that are free of chemicals that emit certain toxic gases on combustion, will be allowed, and only between 8 pm to 10 pm. Cracker-bursting on other festivals and weddings will also be restricted to the prescribed time-window; and, like the Fourth of July fireworks in the US, SC has directed the Union and state governments to organise community fireworks displays in open fields. Naturally, the ban will help. Last year, the SC ban on sale of crackers in NCR ensured that the Air Quality Index registered a PM2.5 pollution of 269 on Diwali at the Dilshad Garden measuring station as compared to 427 the year before.
Apart from the fact that enforcing such bans is a tough task, the larger problem is that of an increasing reliance on episodic responses such as Delhi’s odd-even restrictions, the SC ban on 2,000 cc+ diesel engines (later lifted), etc., instead of tackling the real issues. Odd-even didn’t work because, while vehicles accounted for around 9% of the city’s pollution, just a tenth was due to 4-wheelers that were affected by odd-even. While road dust contributes 56% and 38% of Delhi’s PM10 and PM2.5 pollution, respectively, industries including power plants are responsible for over 50% of the NOx pollution. Crop stubble burning in Haryana and Punjab adds considerably to NCR pollution over a longer period than crackers—a recently released Harvard University-NASA study, using data from 2012 to 2016, shows that this is responsible for nearly 50% of the pollution in the NCR in October and November.
To tackle road dust, the Delhi government has talked of mechanised sweeping and water-sprinkling but what would be more beneficial is if the sides of the roads could be paved or covered with grass that holds the soil together and stops the production of the dust in the first place. Reducing the vehicle density on Delhi’s streets needs the city to vastly improve its public transport; instead of building more dedicated bus corridors, the Delhi government demolished the only one that existed. The Centre, for its part, dodged the persistent demand to ban petcoke—a coal-substitute that had an even worse pollution impact—before banning it only in August this year.
A more viable solution than odd-even was completing the peripheral highways around the capital to lower the movement of trucks into the area. And while the capital has huge garbage fires in dumps, and it gets burned anyway if there is no dump, there has been no comprehensive solution for segregating and processing waste. Nor, when it comes to crop-burning, has much headway been made. Since the costs of the mechanised alternative to stubble-burning are very high, famers find it cheaper to pay fines; even though both Punjab and Haryana have introduced renting of machines that are part of the mechanised alternative, as per Down to Earth, the available lot can cover just a fifth of the acreage under paddy in Haryana in the short period farmers have between kharif harvest and rabi sowing. Short-term solutions like green-crackers and community fireworks may help, but only as a few short gasps.