THE political and policy responses to the burning of crop residue and the resultant air pollution remind one of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. One man felt the elephant’s stomach and likened it to a wall; another touched the trunk and described it as a snake; the third, feeling the tail, called it a rope. They kept quarrelling and couldn’t agree on the elephant’s appearance. The smog problem is the proverbial elephant and our politicians, policymakers and experts are like the blind men. They are all looking at the problem through their narrow lenses, blaming each other, and are unable to agree on a solution.
The Centre set up the Commission for Air Quality Management two years ago. It is not even a paper tiger.
For a workable and lasting answer, all parties concerned must agree on the root causes of the problem. In the past 20 years, enough evidence has been generated to show that the recurring air quality deterioration in the winter months in the region is a result of multiple factors — crop residue burning, meteorological conditions and emissions from the transport and industrial sectors. Farmers resort to stubble burning as a quick and cheap method to clear their fields for the next crop cycle. Alternatives like manual removal or the use of machinery are time-consuming and expensive. The narrow window between the harvesting of one crop and the sowing of the next often leaves farmers with little time to explore or adopt alternative methods for managing crop residue.
While looking at pollution as a farm sector issue, it is critical to recognise that it is of recent origin and can be traced to the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Act, 2009. It is a classic case of how a law enacted to solve one environmental problem has resulted in another. The law was implemented to conserve groundwater by regulating paddy cultivation. It prohibited farmers from sowing paddy seeds before May 10 and transplanting before June 10 so as to reduce water usage. Sowing in April-May required 4,500 litres of water per kg of rice, while mid-June sowing needed only 1,500-2,000 litres. Though the law has checked the decline in the water table, it has inadvertently caused farmers to burn rice straw due to the insufficient time available for field preparation for the next crop. The larger question, of course, relates to changing cropping patterns.
The political and media discourse posits the problem as a ‘Punjab versus Delhi’ matter. Some see it as a rural-urban conflict. The hypothesis is that the air quality in the national capital worsens in the winter due to crop residue burning in Punjab. Such a simplistic argument underplays the grave environmental crisis and health hazards that crop residue burning pose to millions of people across the Indo-Gangetic plains every year. Environmental pollution hurts the people of Delhi as much as it affects the residents of Punjab, Haryana, parts of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. The air quality in the entire region suffers. Particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) does not know political and regional boundaries.
Scientists from Japan’s Research Institute for Humanity and Nature and Amritsar-based Guru Nanak Dev University have recently published results of their field survey in Punjab, Haryana and Delhi-NCR, conducted from September 1 to November 30 last year, using gas sensor-based instruments to measure PM2.5 across Punjab and the region. These observations show that PM2.5 in the region increased gradually from about 60 micrograms per cubic metre in October to up to 500 during November 5-9. The reading subsequently decreased to about 100 during November 20-30. The national air quality standard for PM2.5 is 40 and 60 micrograms per cubic metre for annual and 24-hour exposure, respectively. Scientists tracked plumes of PM2.5 as they moved from Punjab to Delhi via Haryana and noted that the air contained not just PM2.5 but also secondary pollutants formed due to chemical reactions in the atmosphere. “The maximum sufferers reside where air pollutants are emitted,” says Prabir K Patra, leader of the research project.
If the problem is multifarious — related to agriculture, environment, health, economy and society — the solutions should reflect it. Paddy straw can be used in multiple ways; farmers should be encouraged to use it and not burn it. There are machines available to help them do so. Indian Institutes of Technology and startups have proposed several technological solutions. All this is fine, but techno-fixes alone are not going to help. We need to know the underlying reasons behind their non-adoption and identify social and economic barriers to adoption. Farmers often argue why they should pay or suffer for the problems of urban areas and Delhi-NCR. They need to be explained about the environmental and health costs they and their families accrue every year due to farm fires. Change is possible if people can be convinced that air pollution is costing them their health. We have not seen any effort being made in this direction.
The Central and state governments as well as the ruling parties should work together, but they keep blaming each other. The Centre set up the Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas two years ago. It is not even a paper tiger. Of the 23 members, 17 are ex-officio ones and there is nominal representation of civil society and none from the health sector or the farming community. The commission has failed to make any dent either by way of showing eagerness to find a solution or by bringing together all stakeholders. As in the fable of the blind men, the policymakers and politicians need to be reminded that the elephant called air pollution is a large animal and that they need to put together all the parts they are touching individually so as to see the truth.
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