As Winter sets in, pollution follows in North India

As temperature drops in the nation's capital, so is visibility dropping. Not because of shorter days, but with the thick cloud of smog that descends on the city every winter. Article Courtesy India.Mongabay.com. Writer: Mayank Aggarwal

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  • Delhi records high levels of air pollution throughout the year. During winters the air quality reaches toxic levels. Crop residue burning and vehicular pollution are among the major reasons behind such high levels of air pollution. The government is implementing a comprehensive action plan to tackle it but it may not be enough.
  • But Delhi and the National Capital Region is not alone and nearly all of northern India witnesses high levels of air pollution. Several plans have been formed to control it in the last two years and one such comprehensive plan is being implemented by the environment ministry right now.
  • Every winter season, Delhi and its adjoining areas witnesses toxic levels of air quality. Crop residue burning and vehicular pollution are considered as the top reasons, among others, for air pollution.
  • Considering the adverse impact of air pollution globally, the World Health Organisation is organising a Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health from October 30 to November 1.

Winter in north India is almost here and social media is already buzzing with pictures of crop residue burning in northern Indian states. Over the last few years, the national capital and adjoining regions have consistently faced severe levels of air pollution during the winter season, from November to February. The authorities seem better prepared this year after coming under fire from courts for failing to control the pollution levels. But it isn’t enough as the air quality is seen steadily deteriorating and it seems the city is already on the path to once again resemble a gas chamber.

As per the central government’s System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR), the overall air quality in Delhi has been in the poor and very poor category so far this week. This is expected to dip further in the days ahead.

Following the criticism from courts and the orders to devise comprehensive plans, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and other state governments including that of Delhi and nearby states have formulated plans to tackle air pollution.

Is Delhi and its neighbourhood better prepared this time?

One such ‘Comprehensive action plan for air pollution control in Delhi and NCR (National Capital Region)’ that is led by the MoEFCC has already kicked off in the city.

Under this, a graded response action plan is being implemented which ensures appropriate and coordinated response by different authorities as and when air pollution rises. It also includes satellite-based air pollution monitoring to check stubble burning during these months, strengthening of monitoring pollution from vehicles, action against visibly polluting vehicles including penalties, extensive awareness drive against polluting vehicles, checking overloading of vehicles and improvement in public transport among other actions.

The Badarpur thermal power plant, running since 1973 and identified as one of the major sources of pollution in the Delhi-NCR area by the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority, was also closed down permanently last week to control pollution.

On October 23, the Supreme Court of India, while hearing a case that sought a ban on manufacturing and sale of firecrackers across the country to curb air pollution, passed a series of measures to regulate it.

Every year in winters Delhi witnesses severe levels of air pollution. Photo by Sumita Roy Dutta/Wikimedia Commons.

Though it refused to impose a nationwide ban on the sale of firecrackers, SC ruled that only those crackers that are less polluting and within the prescribed noise levels and emission norms will be allowed to be sold.

It banned online sale of firecrackers and stated that any such “e-commerce companies found selling crackers online will be hauled up for contempt of court and the Court may also pass, in that eventuality, orders of monetary penalties as well”.

It also ruled that people will be allowed to burn crackers for two hours between 8-10 pm on Diwali and on any other festivals like Gurpurab and from 11:55 pm to 12:30 am for New Year and Christmas festivities. “Even for marriages and other occasions, sale of improved crackers and green crackers is only permitted,” the SC directed.

While the SC permitted only green crackers (those with reduced emissions), it banned “manufacture, sale and use of joined firecrackers (series crackers or laris) … as the same causes huge air, noise and solid waste problems”.

But the SC ruling on firecrackers may still not be enough to deal with the mammoth issue of air pollution.

Recently, Delhi’s Environment Minister Imran Hussain released a NASA image of north India that shows widespread crop burning – a common agricultural practice where farmers burn crop residue to quickly prepare field for sowing the new crop – Hussain stated that the crop residue burning in fields must be immediately halted failing which a serious health hazard awaits entire northern India.

The environment minister of the national capital also emphasised that it is beyond any reasonable understanding as to why this menace is being ignored despite a well-known fact that the consequences will be disastrous in the coming days.

He stressed that the graded response action plan is already enforced and requested Delhi residents to minimise the local pollution. He announced that there will be zero tolerance for garbage and requested to cover all the construction material to stop dust re-suspension. Hussain also announced that teams have been formed to carry out surprise inspections to check violations.

Crop residue burning in northern India is considered a major reason for air pollution in the Delhi-NCR area. Photo by Neil Palmer (CIAT)/Flickr.

“Very sad that central, Punjab and Haryana governments did absolutely nothing for the farmers. As a result, the farmers will suffer on one hand and Delhi will become a gas chamber soon,” tweeted Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on October 19.

Other steps are required as well

Environmentalists feel that stubble burning is not the only source of air pollution and even in the case of stubble burning not much is being done for helping farmers.

“The satellite data available so far shows a reduction in stubble burning but the crop season started late this year. Stubble burning is now picking up the pace and may increase in days to come,” said Devinder Sharma, an agriculture policy expert. “But the point is that farmers have started doing their bit even when governments and people at large don’t want to do anything for farmers. Every disaster including air pollution has become an opportunity where machines like happy seeders are being imposed on farmers. It is shoddy planning nothing else. Basically, no one is interested in farmers of Punjab if there is no pollution in Delhi.”

zero pollution sign
The Nation Needs It

The experts also point out that it is not just Delhi that is facing the problem of air pollution alone and instead it is the entire northern India that faces the menace.  According to the national air quality bulletin by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the air quality recorded earlier this week was poor across several cities in northern India like Agra, Baghpat, Bhiwadi, Bulandshahr, Muzaffarnagar, Muzaffarpur and Varanasi.

In May 2018, a report by the World Health Organisation revealed that India has 14 out of the world’s 15 most polluted cities in terms of the levels of particulate matter, especially Particulate Matter (PM)2.5. Similar reports were published by the WHO in 2014 and 2016 revealed that most of the world’s top polluted cities were in India.

In April 2018, the MoEFCC released a draft National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) – a first national-level plan to address the issue at the national level. However, six months down the line the NCAP is yet to be finalised. It was heavily criticised by experts who felt that the plan lacks clear pollution reduction targets, city-wise or region-wise milestones and powers to ensure compliance.

But this is not the lone plan. In the past few years, since the time air pollution has been in the limelight, multiple plans have been formed.

For instance, in December 2017, a task force led by Nripendra Misra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister of India, released a 12-point draft plan to tackle pollution in the Delhi-NCR region. In July 2018, the NITI Aayog released a booklet that suggested a list of 15 action points across a range of industries and sectors to control air pollution.

Aerial view of Badarpur power plant which was recently closed permanently. Photo by Sumita Roy Dutta/Wikimedia Commons.

A recent report published by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis(IEEFA) found that Tehri Hydro Development Corporation (THDC)’s proposed Khurja coal power plant will push up the cost of electricity and increase air pollution in Delhi.

The report recommended that the Khurja proposal should be re-evaluated in light of severe air pollution levels in Delhi, the real threat of government financing wasted on another expensive stranded asset, increasingly cheaper renewable energy options, and India’s ambitious sustainable energy goals.

Tim Buckley, who is the director of energy finance studies at IEEFA, said electricity users, the state and central government and project’s lenders should not be burdened with yet another expensive stranded asset at a time when local residents need cleaner energy options.

“Delhi already has the dubious reputation of having the worst air pollution of any city in the world. If the Khurja coal plant is built as planned near Delhi, this will increase the impact on local residents, emergency workers and the local government,” said Buckley in a statement.

“The Khurja power plant was feasible when first proposed eight years ago in response to power supply shortages and outages across northern India, but technology has moved on. The Khurja proposal relies on a prohibitively expensive 900 kilometre long rail haul to bring coal to the plant. Additionally, the market price of coal continues to increase globally. The economics of the project look dim. The Khurja proposal must be re-evaluated,” he added.

Whether the plans that are being implemented by authorities are effective and there will be some respite from pollution for people of Delhi-NCR region this winter or people are doomed to suffer is something will which will be clear in the coming months.

This article has been carried from India.mongabay.com, where it first appeared on Oct 25, 2018

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