Every year the same poisonous fumes descend on Delhi and the  National Capital Region as winter arrives. While this is an annual phenomenon, federal and state governments have consistently failed to take the measures needed to combat bad pollution. As a result, the Air Quality Index (AQI) over northern India continues to remain hazardous and pose a significant health risk to citizens.

At the end of the Kharif (monsoon crop) season, farmers growing paddy have a very short period of time between harvesting paddy and cultivating wheat. Removing the paddy and wheat stalk that remains in their fields is labor-intensive, time-consuming and expensive. So, most farmers choose the easy option of burning the stubble despite directions not to do this by the Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal.

A study by the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture on ‘Straw Burning in Punjab’ has revealed alarming statistics: “Wheat crop residue is spread over 5,500 sq km while that of rice is on 12,685 sq km. For every 4 tons of rice or wheat grain, about 6 tons of straw is produced. Burning one ton of straw releases 3kg of particulate matter, 60kg of CO (carbon monoxide), 1,460kg of CO2 (carbon dioxide), 199kg of ash and 2kg of SO2 (sulfur dioxide).”

Burning stubble is a relatively recent phenomenon. The farmers use machines to cut their crop, which leaves a bigger residue than when it was cut manually. Previously, that smaller portion was tilled and mixed with the soil as natural manure. But with labor costs increasing, farmers tend to hire machines and cut the crop, which has led to greater stubble.

Experts have called for farmers to be paid adequate compensation as an incentive to stop them burning the crop stubble. There are also NGOs working to utilize the residual organic matter – to turn it into briquettes that can become a source of fuel. About three years ago, Punjab and Haryana governments offered monetary incentives to farmers at the village level but the practice seems to have been discontinued.

Tackling car pollution

Delhi has witnessed a growth in vehicle sales that is more than the combined sales in the other big cities of Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai.

According to Delhi’s Statistical Handbook 2016, the number of buses was just 34,000 and the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC), the public entity, runs less than 5,000 of these. Those figures are massively overshadowed by the number of vehicles on Delhi’s roads – 9.7 million, not to mention those that enter the capital from neighboring states every day. Even the drivers of the 6-million two-wheelers avoid DTC buses due to their unavailability and limited coverage, even though the temperature drops dramatically during winter.

The DTC is a city government body with a legacy of corruption. “Two key problems plague it,” a senior Delhi government official told Asia Times. “The companies that provide buses are not able to provide to our specifications. Second, even when we get the buses, we don’t have parking spaces because the land belongs to the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), which is a federal body,” the official said.

A woman wears a face mask on a smoggy day in New Delhi, India, November 13, 2017. REUTERS/Saumya Khandelwal
A woman wears a face mask on a smoggy day in New Delhi on November 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters/ Saumya Khandelwal

A government document from the Ministry of Environment and Forests on ‘Ambient Air Quality Monitoring’ gave eight reasons for ‘High Air Pollution in India’:

  1. Poor quality of fuel,
  2. Old process technology utilized by industry, including the unorganized sector,
  3. The presence of industries closer to residential areas,
  4. No steps to prevent pollution in early stages of industrialization,
  5. Poor vehicle design, especially for 2-stroke two-wheelers,
  6. Uncontrolled growth in the number of vehicles,
  7. No pollution prevention or control system for small and medium-scale enterprises, and
  8. Poor compliance with standards in small/medium scale industries.

The only alternative to reducing the number of vehicles on Delhi roads is to flood the city with public transport buses. But the lack of available land is the big hurdle that prevents this being achieved. “The only viable option is where [areas for] bus parking can be optimized greatly by constructing multilevel depots. It would optimize the use of land and reduce dependency on identification of new land pockets,” a senior Delhi official said.

The Environmental Pollution Control Authority  conducted a study and submitted a report in May 2016 – Asia Times has a copy of it – that called for the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the agency responsible for Delhi’s Master Plan, to make suitable changes.“The report has already been submitted, so now the onus is on the Delhi government to go ahead,” an EPCA official told Asia Times.

Lethal dust and smog

Construction of infrastructure has been going on in Delhi for at least a decade. The National Highways Authority and the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation are the two main agencies but the Delhi government’s Public Works Department and municipal building departments also need to curb their activity. “It [construction] has been a never-ending problem. There are limits to everything in a land-locked place such as Delhi. It is the real estate lobby that pushes for it and the policy-makers go for ‘over-capacity’ infrastructure. So, be prepared for the consequences,” warned Deewan Singh of the NGO Natural Heritage First.

And it is not just construction dust – the roads are filthy with dust also. Mundaka area in west Delhi, for instance, has an arterial road that nearby residents say has not been swept for ages. “I often take that road and I can see mounds and mounds of soil along the sides. I have never ever seen any mechanized sweeper cleaning this road. It is the state government that should ensure their roads are clean,” he added.

Experts and government officials harp on about year-round consistent efforts, but tough choices also need to be made. Dr Vaibhav Chaturvedi, a research fellow with the Council on Energy, Environment and Water,  said: “Among National Capital Region towns and cities, it is Delhi that needs the strongest regulations. There is a need to force people to make difficult, inconvenient choices. But unfortunately, these seem to be politically untenable.”