Days after Diwali 2016, Delhi was engulfed in smog. Initially, the general antipathy of the public was towards the burning of crackers. Though cracker burning did had its share in the particulates in the air, the smog was caused by the yearly practice of crop burning in Punjab and Haryana. The straws, after the cultivation of rice, are burnt to prepare the ground for the cultivation of wheat, a winter crop. Thus, these fires occur widely in both the irrigation extensive states Punjab and Haryana.
Delhi-NCR, being an urban agglomeration with high traffic and low vegetation cover, was severely hit. There were complaints about lack of visibility, irritation in the eyes and difficulties in breathing. Images of the smog were shared all over the social media, newspapers and news sites.
Source - PTI Images
Source - EPA
While smog in Delhi is not an unknown, this particular smog has particularly disturbing characteristics. Visually it is noticeably denser. Chemically, it has larger concentration of particulate matter. The US Embassy in New Delhi said that Delhi’s air pollution index rose and crossed the upper limit of 500 to be classed as “hazardous”, and rose to 1,126 at 2 am, 7th November 2016.
Delhi topped the WHO list of cities with the most polluted air in 2014. Without the smog, Delhi’s air is not considered safe. With the smog, it has become downright dangerous.
In the wake of the crisis, the Delhi government announced emergency measures. A five day ban on construction and demolition work, shutting down the Badarpur plant for ten days. Water sprinkling and vacuuming will begin and the option of reinstating the Odd-Even rule, which had evoked mixed response earlier.
However, Delhi’s air pollution has been a crisis of years in the making and the smog is only the culmination of the factors acting together. It is unfair to blame one part alone because the problem is that all are complicit – the sustained cracker burning in the city, the burning of crops by the Punjab and Haryana farmers, the high number of vehicles, and insufficient green cover.
There is a lack of a coherent plan to tackle this building crisis because the power structure in Delhi, which is prone to politicking and hence, the Delhi government and the Center are locked in multiple political squabbles. The solution will require serious planning, coordinated action and yearly implementation. Some of the long term solutions can be, broadly along these lines:
1. Overhaul of public transport: While Delhi Metro is expanding well, the same needs to occur for DTC. This also means that people would also have to use public transport more, or develop carpools and shared cabs. Also, while the Metro is undergoing expansion, measures are necessary to minimize the construction dust.
2. Alternatives to Crop Burning: Regardless of what politicos say, burning the remaining stubble is one of the major reasons for the yearly smog that occurs in Delhi. This year’s smog happens to be particularly bad. Alternative methods of getting rid of remaining straw should be explored and implemented at its earliest – compost, biogas generation, etc. Burning is widespread because it is the easy way out, otherwise it is uneconomic for the farmers.
3. Limitations to Diwali crackers: The problem with crackers, especially in the Delhi-NCR region is that the population is high and the cracker usage is continuous. The Delhi government should put strict time limits, pollution control certification and strongly discourage. If the air quality shows severe deterioration in quality, they should be banned.
4. Strictly enforce the ban on garbage burning: This problem is endemic to Delhi. Garbage burning, a routine affair though not as concentrated as the burning of crops, is much more harmful qualitatively as the fumes have higher toxic content.
These are only a general list of suggestions. Unless both citizens and government do not take steps to overcome this problem, it might cascade into uncontrollable proportions. Delhi is already choking, with or without the smog.
Title image: twitter