Diwali celebrations in October kick-started the annual air pollution emergency in New Delhi and the political blame game as well. While the arrival of winter left millions in north India gasping for breath, and cases of respiratory illnesses soared across the region, the focus remained uncannily on the national capital.
Besides Delhi, UP, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Bihar are seeing the worst of air pollution in recent decades. The World Air Quality Report released by the Swiss organisation IQAir in March 2022, lists 35 Indian cities in the 50 most polluted cities in the world. Of them, 14 rank in the top 20, and all are in north India—seven in Uttar Pradesh, five in Haryana, and one each in Rajasthan and New Delhi.
In the full list of 50 feature Bhiwadi in Rajasthan; Ghaziabad, Jaunpur, Noida, Baghpat, Meerut, Lucknow, Kanpur, Varanasi, Bulandshahr and Greater Noida in UP; Muzaffarpur and Patna in Bihar; Hisar, Jind, Rohtak, Gurgaon and Faridabad in Haryana; and New Delhi.
The seasonal factors that result in the deterioration in air quality are well-known: the winter haze, fireworks during Diwali, and smoke from stubble burning in Punjab, Haryana, and parts of UP. Stubble burning gets rid of crop residue and helps clear farmland for the next sowing. Such burning has been the focus of all attention for the past few years, with governments offering farmers financial incentives to stop the practice.
However, besides these seasonal factors are the constant vehicular pollution and emissions from industries and electricity generation that mix with the winter fog and turn it into toxic smog. Construction dust and brick kilns also contribute to the smog.
At the national level, the emphasis now is on renewable energy sources and the phasing out of old polluting automobiles and the eventual closure of thermal power facilities. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to have net zero carbon emissions in India by 2070, and his government claims that by 2030 renewable energy will provide 50 per cent of the country’s electricity demands. In the context of automobiles, poor coordination between the pollution control boards and local Regional Transport Offices (RTOs) has made the phasing out of old vehicles a challenge.
Toxic air in Uttar Pradesh
According to Venkatesh Dutta, an Environment Science professor at Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University, Lucknow, pollution levels in UP are alarmingly off the charts but often go unreported. He said, “The monitoring devices in UP are unevenly distributed with some districts having multiple devices while others have no functional devices. In smaller cities, the reporting is even more scarce. No serious sampling is done. Because of this, much of the pollution goes unreported.”
He added that the pollution woes in UP are likely to get worse if only because the pollution control board in the State is highly understaffed. He added, “The UP Pollution Control Board swings into action only when there is a cumulative, visible impact of pollution. There is no precautionary approach, no advance planning.” Further, he said that cases of respiratory illnesses are rocketing in the state because of pollution.
According to Gufran Ullah Beig, a scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, toxic emissions can cause long-term damage to people’s health. “The chemical composition of the particles that make up PM2.5 matter should be analysed to solve the health problems linked with pollution,” he told Frontline.
PM 2.5 refers to particulate matter in the air that are 2.5 microns in width.
Among the main contributors to pollution in UP are dust from transportation and construction activities. Several national highways pass through the State, resulting in extreme vehicular pollution. Exposed earth on many of the roads kick up dust and contribute to the worsening air quality. On top of this, many small-scale industries, benefiting from the State government’s push to generate employment, do not comply with environmental regulations.
With the failure of awareness programmes on the dangers of stubble burning, the UP government is considering enforcing legal penalties, including filing FIRs against violators apart from the fines already in place. Farmers have remained stubborn on stubble burning cases because the other measures to get rid of stubble require special equipment and/or biochemicals and are labour intensive.
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The Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS) of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the United States, reported close to 800 incidents of stubble burning from 18 districts of UP in two weeks spanning October and November.
Support for the farmers has come from Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, who said recently that he felt bad when farmers were held responsible for Delhi’s increasing pollution. “I am the Minister for Agriculture and I speak for the farming community. I feel that if farmers cause an increase in pollution in Delhi, I am to blame,” he said. To erase the negative connotation associated with farmers, he argued, is everyone’s responsibility, he added and urged both Delhi and neighbouring states to take action to stop the problem.
On the other hand, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have come under fire from Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav for failing to address Delhi’s pollution crisis. Yadav tweeted: “There is no dispute over who has transformed Delhi into a gas chamber,” pointing to an increase in agricultural residue fires in Punjab, which elected an AAP government earlier this year.
While pollution in north India soared, south Indian States enjoyed clear skies and weather. This is because of the different meteorological factors in South India. According to S.K. Dhaka, a professor at Delhi University, the pollution levels in southern India are mostly low because of its coastal surroundings. “There are strong winds in the southern regions, while the wind speed is significantly lesser in the northern states,” he said.
High levels of air pollution are also a result of the country’s rapid economic development, which has resulted in a surge in energy demand for industrialisation, vehicle emissions, and rapidly growing cities with their upwardly mobile middle classes.
Currently, India’s economy is heavily driven by services, but with Modi’s “Make in India” and production linked incentive schemes manufacturing is getting a big boost. It is possible that further industrialisation could harm the environment at a time when the nation already has some of the most polluted cities in the world and is still at a very early stage of its manufacturing evolution (around 15 per cent of the Indian GDP is from manufacturing.)
According to the World Bank, Vietnam has been the world’s fastest-growing greenhouse emitter over the past two decades. During this period, the share of manufacturing in Vietnam’s GDP has doubled. Clearly, rapid industrialisation comes at a cost.
According to D.P. Dimri, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Environmental Sciences, air pollution in north Indian States is an alarming issue throughout the year. “At this time, there are several seasonal factors at play, such as changing wind direction, stubble burning, and less moisture in the soil. But the pollution levels are not satisfactory even at other times in the year,” he said. He believes that rapid urbanisation is the main reason for this. “Rapid urbanisation means more industries, more construction activity, increased electricity consumption, and expansion of cities, all of which contribute to air pollution,” he said.
Tall buildings have also contributed to the worsening air pollution. According to Dimri, tall buildings prevent the wind from taking away pollutants. “Development comes at a cost. But how much cost can we bear in the name of development? More jobs and better income, of course, are the need of the hour. But development should also focus on creating a sustainable model.
An inter-state approach
Kalyani Tembhe, Program Officer in the Clean Air and Sustainable Mobility department of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), believes that an inter-State approach is essential to curb air pollution. She told Frontline, “Air pollution does not follow geographical, State boundaries. A single government cannot curb pollution in its jurisdiction without working in conjunction with adjoining States.”
In her paper “Managing Regional Air Quality: Need for a Framework”, she writes that the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), the first-ever national framework to guide clean air action in polluted cities, is completely city-centric. As part of the NCAP, 132 cities have been identified as non-attainment cities implementing action plans to meet this target.
She said that city-centric measures were not enough to deal with the problem. “The pollution in the city is not all originating in the city. The pollution in the adjoining States does not all originate there. There is a lot of transboundary movement of emissions among the north Indian States,” she said.
Air quality analysis carried out by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has shown that even smaller towns and cities in north India with much lower annual average particulate levels than Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) experience higher levels than Delhi during smog episodes.
The Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM) in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas, a statutory body, was formed in August 2021 to tackle air pollution in Delhi-NCR, aiming for better coordination, research, identification, and resolution of problems relating to air quality. She believes that such bodies are important and should be replicated.
Further, she said that pressure on politicians from the masses is needed to drive better environmental policies. She said: “People need to be made aware of the damage that pollution can cause to health, which will be possible with proper studies to quantify it. This will create pressure on governments.”
- The World Air Quality Report, released by the Swiss organisation IQAir in March 2022, lists 35 Indian cities in the 50 most polluted cities in the world.
- Of them, 14 rank in the top 20, and all are in north India—seven in Uttar Pradesh, five in Haryana, one in Rajasthan, and New Delhi.
- The seasonal factors that result in the deterioration in air quality are: the winter haze, fireworks during Diwali, and smoke from stubble burning in Punjab, Haryana, and parts of UP.
- As for stubble burning, with the failure of awareness programmes, the UP government is considering enforcing legal penalties.
- Air quality analysis carried out by the CSE has shown that even smaller towns and cities in north India with much lower annual average particulate levels than Delhi and the NCR experience higher levels than Delhi during smog episodes.