New Delhi: Every year, when winter sets in, Delhi’s air pollution peaks with the air quality index (AQI) often plunging to the ‘severe’ and ‘hazardous’ categories. On Thursday, the national capital recorded an AQI of 452, which is considered ‘severe’ and can also impact healthy individuals.
Experts have also pointed out that worsening air quality can make the Covid-19 pandemic deadlier. A recent study cited a direct link between 30 per cent of the total Covid deaths in the world and air pollution.
A major reason behind the spike in Delhi’s air pollution is stubble burning by farmers in Punjab and Haryana, which increased to about 42 per cent Thursday — the highest it has been this season.
In the last 46 days, close to 50,000 farm fires have taken place in Punjab, which is a 40 per cent surge from last year. Meanwhile, in Haryana, Active Fire Locations (AFL) crossed the 6,000-mark Tuesday.
According to officials, early harvest and unavailability of labour due to the coronavirus pandemic has led to more farm fires this year.
With the festive season kicking in and rising instances of stubble burning, experts have warned that the air pollution in Delhi could be alarmingly high.
While stubble burning is an important factor, it is not the only factor that contributes to rising air pollution in Delhi. Vehicles and industrial emissions are also contributors to worsening air quality in the national capital.
ThePrint looks at stubble burning, the alternatives and the steps that have been taken by the central and state governments to curb it.
Alternatives to stubble burning
Stubble burning is the act of clearing agricultural fields by burning the residue that is left on the land after harvesting, to ready it for the next round of seeding.
The period from 15 October to 15 November is when stubble burning instances spike because paddy crops are harvested during this time and the residue left behind needs to be cleared to sow wheat.
While burning is the easiest and cheapest method, there are other, less harmful ways of clearing agricultural fields.
One such method is using a Turbo Happy Seeder (THS) machine, which can uproot the stubble and also sow seeds in the area cleared. The stubble can then be used as mulch for the field.
Another possible alternative is the Pusa bio-decomposer, developed by the scientists at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, which turns crop residue to manure in 15-20 days by accelerating the decomposition process.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal Wednesday said that the Pusa bio-decomposer has been successful in the city and that the government will inform the Supreme Court about its effectiveness.
Steps taken by government
Last week, the central government introduced a new law through an ordinance to curb air pollution in the Delhi-NCR region. The ordinance dissolved the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) and in its stead, a new commission was set up with over 20 members.
According to the ordinance, released by the Ministry of Law and Justice, “any non-compliance or contravention of any provisions/rules or order/direction of the Commission will be an offence punishable with a jail term up to five years or with fine up to Rs one crore or with both”.
The areas where the ordinance shall be in force include Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh apart from the Delhi-NCR region.
The Punjab and Haryana High Court had, last month, directed the respective governments to take all steps possible, including use of force to stop farmers from stubble burning.
Furthermore, the Haryana government spent Rs 1,300 crore to set up Custom Hiring Centres (CHCs), in order to help farmers manage straw by providing machinery at subsidised rates.
In September, the erstwhile EPCA had written to both the governments, asking them to “urgently” implement measures to reduce farm fires.
What farmers say
However, despite these measures, farmers in Punjab and Haryana have not halted stubble burning. According to them, they are forced to resort to this method because of the lack of options provided by the government.
The Financial Express quoted a farmer from Punjab, who said that they had asked the district administration to dump the stubble accumulated. However, no action was taken in this regard for over 10 days, after which they burnt it.
Farmers have also noted that hiring stubble-removing machines is not financially viable, as most marginal farmers cannot afford them. This is because big farmers who set up the CHCs charge high rents, even after purchasing the implements at 80 per cent subsidy.
Several states ban firecrackers
Another major cause of pollution, especially during the festival season, are firecrackers and in the past few days several state governments have banned their sale.
The Karnataka government is the most recent one to do so with Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa citing the Covid pandemic for the decision.
Firecrackers are banned in Odisha from 10 November to 30 November and in Sikkim, there is a blanket ban on them to protect public health.
The Calcutta High Court has also banned the use of firecrackers in the state on Diwali, Kali Puja and Chhath Puja. Haryana and Madhya Pradesh have banned the sale and use of imported crackers.
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) said that it will ban the bursting of firecrackers at public places on Diwali.