Dilli Meri Jaan: Causes and Effects of Air Pollution

Delhi is more than a city. It is an emotion, a sentiment; a sentiment that can only be understood by someone who has lived in the city and loved it. The cold and misty December nights, the early morning fog, the ice cream at India Gate on a hot evening, the wet, rainy days, and the blooming flowers in March; the city has so much to offer. Mere words cannot say it all.

Delhi is a city where I have spent a large part of my life. Delhi is a city that I love for its wide roads, parks, heritage, monuments, street food, people and shopping. Yes, it is congested, has its not-so-nice parts and is notorious for crime against women, but I still love it. Every city, big or small, has its issues and problems, but they can all be resolved with the right intent. When you love someone, you love them in totality ( faults et al.)

Where can you find a green paradise in the middle of a city with beautiful walking paths, medieval-age monuments and picnic spots?

Where in the world would you find a city with so much history? Delhi has 3 World Heritage sights, 174 National Protected Monuments, and over hundreds of state-protected monuments and several unprotected and lesser-known monuments.

The architectural wonders like the Red Fort, Qutab Minar, Humayun’s Tomb, Safdarjang’s Tomb, India Gate, Jamali Kamali, Jama Masjid, Purana Qila, Jantar Mantar are all a part of this city.

People from all over rave about the lip-smacking street food you can get in the city, from Chaat to Gol Guppe to Chola Bhatura to Aloo Tiki to Daulat ki Chaat to Ram Ladoos. 

Anyone visiting Delhi cannot go back till they have had their fill of Chandni Chowk, Lajpat Nagar, Connaught Place, Khan Market, Greater Kailash and now the malls.

Delhi, with its beautiful seasons; a city where you get to taste all kinds of weather, from the unbearable heat to the bitter cold to the incessant rains. It’s warm and friendly people who may seem a tad interfering but will drop everything to be with you when you need them. 

It is a city I grew up in and love to bits. It’s always been a part of my existence, and I have never wanted to leave it, no matter the provocation.

But in the last few years, I have begun to wonder. 

Delhi, as I said, has the best of all seasons. As September turns into October, one can start feeling that slight nip in the air with the mornings and evenings becoming cooler. This change heralds the change of season and the onset of winter. 

It is also the festival season with Durga Puja, Diwali, Christmas, and the New Year. This is also the wedding season, with Delhites getting married by the dozens. It’s the time when all roads should lead to Delhi, but in reality, the opposite seems to be happening. People want to leave the city at this time. Why?

The answer, my friend, is actually blowing in the wind!! 

Air Pollution and Its Effects

The answer lies in the alarming pollution levels the city starts experiencing at this time of the year. Come September, and one starts dreading the coming months. This is because we know that pollution will make our lives miserable. Sore throats, cough, cold, fever, irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, headaches, dizziness and fatigue will become the order of the day. This is for people with no major health issues. Unfortunately, those with problems like asthma and other breathing disorders find it impossible to survive in these conditions. These are the short-term effects of air pollution. In the long term, we know there can be major health issues like cancer, respiratory diseases, heart disease, nervous system disorder and congenital disabilities. 

Air pollution at this time of the year is the highest and seems to have become a permanent fixture, and sadly we can’t seem to find a way out. This is not how we want to live. The fear, the apprehension and the injustice of it all are hard to accept. We citizens feel that when we are paying taxes and observing rules, why should this sword hang over us?

Not only that, but Air pollution also impacts the environment by reducing visibility and blocking sunlight which will eventually lead to disasters like acid rain and untold damage to forests, wildlife, and agriculture. Greenhouse gas pollution, the cause of climate change, will affect the entire planet.

We, the citizens of this city, know this; the powers that be also know this, so how come we haven’t been able to solve this problem?

In a world where we have found answers to most of our issues thanks to science and technology, why can’t we find an answer to this pollution?

The main causes of air pollution in Delhi rang from Diwali, the cars, the trucks, the industries and now, of course, the crop burning. Though all factors are equally responsible, the lion’s share of the blame is on crop burning, especially at this time of the year.

Crop Burning

What exactly is crop burning, how does it cause pollution and is it a recent phenomenon? Let’s try and understand.

Crop burning refers to the practice of burning stubble of the paddy crop after monsoons to prepare the field for the next crop. The stubble burning usually takes place in April to get rid of wheat crop residue and then in October and November, after crops like rice have been harvested following the monsoon and before rabi crops like wheat, mustard, sunflower etc., are sown.

The practice is most common in northern states of India like Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and even parts of Rajasthan. It involves setting fire to the “stubble” or straws of the crop that has been harvested. According to a report from 2017, nearly 35 million tonnes of stubble are set to fire in Punjab and Haryana alone.

Why do the farmers burn the stubble, and why has this become an issue in recent years?

The problem of stubble burning is closely tied to Punjab’s agricultural history. From the 1960s onwards, with the advent of the Green Revolution, the state saw an emphatic shift away from diverse crops like moong, groundnuts, jowar, maize and cotton to a two-crop cycle of wheat and rice. The country faced food scarcity, so the farmers were asked to grow paddy. Then when harvesting became mechanized, the amount of residue increased, and it began to take longer to decompose. While mechanization brought relative prosperity to many farmers, it also gave rise to the large-scale challenge of managing paddy stubble.

The stubble problem got aggravated when paddy sowing was delayed to conserve water, resulting in the residue burning also getting postponed. The delayed sowing led to delayed harvesting and left very little time to ready the soil bed for sowing wheat, forcing farmers to burn paddy residue in the field. The delayed stubble burning also meant that smoke from it got into Delhi at the worst possible weather conditions in late October to mid-November when air quality is very poor in any case.

So what is the answer? Do we go on a blame game and blame the farmers, or do we look for a solution?

To be fair, the government has made efforts in this direction.

They have been trying to create awareness about the impact of stubble burning. They also give farmers monetary incentives to encourage them to stop doing this. They have a system of fines in place. Also, they are offering alternative solutions to deal with the stubble. But somewhere, something needs to be improved, as we are not getting the desired results. 

One has to remember that when the question is about a person’s livelihood, one needs to make the extra effort and take extra care to make them understand. In this case, the government needs to take an empathetic stand and get to what it needs with a mix of soft and hard measures. But first and foremost, the will to do this must be there, and it should not only be pure talk. Action needs to be taken well in time.

A mix of deterrents and alternatives has to be the strategy. Deterrents will discourage, and alternatives will give options. So while fines and all can act as deterrents, the farmers have to be given a choice to stubble burning. They can only be expected to burn the stubble when that is their only option.

So what is the answer?

Solution to the Problem of Crop Burning

Farmers in these states are aware and happy to use technology to solve their problems. So technology must be used to solve the problem. There are techniques and equipment which can help avoid stubble burning; help in direct seeding of wheat without removing the paddy stubble, including using Happy Seeders, cutting and mixing paddy stubble with soil using Rotavators and Mulchers.

While these solutions give the much-needed alternatives, they are expensive, and these machines are in short supply. This is where the government needs to get its act together and take steps to address these issues by giving subsidies or soft loans to the farmers.

Another way to deal with this is to encourage alternate use of paddy stubble: making paper and packing materials, generating energy (or using it in cement plants) and making composts. Hay Baler machines that compress crop residue into bales can be spotted in Punjab and Haryana during this time of the year but are prohibitively costly for farmers.

Crop diversification can also be considered where rather than growing paddy, which needs a lot of water and then leads to stubble, farmers could grow other crops the way they used to do earlier.

The solution lies in adopting a mix of measures.

Also, we as citizens must push the authorities to clean the air. We cannot be a party to the normalization of bad air.

Everyone needs to understand that air pollution will affect everyone, so everyone needs to take action.

So that means the government and the farmers must collectively think of a way to resolve this problem. The solution must be well thought out and implemented to the fullest. 

Air pollution at this time of the year is a reality; there is no turning away from it. Rather than waking up at the last minute and resorting to knee-jerk reactions like the shutting of schools, or passing of draconian, illogical bans on vehicle movements, the government must prepare itself in advance.  

The solution to this has to be implemented with planning and precision. There has to be a will to take action. Whether it is one of these measures or a mix of these is not my concern as a layperson. My problem is that I do not want to be forced to breathe this air.

If elections and rallies can be planned, and foreign travels can be planned, then why can’t measures to do away with this pollution be planned and taken in advance? Can someone answer this question?

What do you think?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

No Comments Yet.