India must wage an immediate, unified war against pollution

The smog is back in Delhi again. Until last month, the sky was so clear that one could see the stars shining brightly. This is worrisome. It is usually closer to Diwali that Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) witness such bad weather conditions.

If this is the situation right now, what will things like be in November? The memories of a horrifying November 2019 are still fresh in our minds. The air quality then had reached such a critical level that the government had to ban activities such as construction, brick kilns, crushers and diesel generators, among other things. The situation had become so bad that many schools were closed for weeks. Trains were routinely late and many flights were diverted as there was such poor visibility. This pollution brought with it severe health problems for those with respiratory ailments and badly affected the elderly and young infants. The official version is that these conditions are the result largely of stubble burning in Punjab, Haryana and other border areas. .

A question that is on everyone’s mind is whether this will aggravate the Covid-19 pandemic. And, unfortunately, the answer seems to be that it will.

Researchers from Harvard University have found a link between coronavirus deaths and hazardous particulate
matter (PM2.5) in the air. They have deduced that air pollution caused an 8% increase in Covid-19 deaths in the United States (US). Germany’s IZA Institute of Labor Economics found, on the basis of studies, that there is a there is a clear connection between greater air pollution in the Netherlands and a faster spread of Covid-19. According to this study, the death rate from the virus due to air pollution was as high as 21%.

The World Health Organization (WHO), however, has not pronounced on this link, and said that further examination of these studies, the data and conclusions are required.

On an average, seven million people die across the world from air pollution-related causes annually. According to the World Air Quality Report released last year, India is ranked five among the world’s most polluted countries. Not only this, 21 of the 30 most polluted cities in the world are in India.

Why is this situation worsening over the years? And this is so, despite strict curbs prescribed by the Supreme Court (SC).  How serious are state governments and the Centre on this pressing issue? Let us look at Haryana and Punjab. There is a hue and cry every year about stubble burning — while the high court has said that this practice should be curbed, the state governments, Centre and the farmers are at loggerheads with each other.

Most of the harvesting in these two regions is done by machine. These machines harvests the crop leaving a part of the stem and root in the ground. The farmers complain that rooting these out could cost up to ₹5,000 to ₹6,000 per acre and that burning is a less expensive proposition. The solution to this problem is using the paddy straw chopper. But this machine cost around ₹1.5 million. The state governments argue that the cost of harvesting the stubble should be borne by the Centre; the latter, in turn, argues that it can only provide machines at reduced rates.

We are in a dire situation. We need stringent restrictions on any activity which causes air pollution to increase. This means anything which generates dust and smoke. This may bring out some improvement but the solution has to be longer-term, such as adopting clean technologies. There is an argument that stopping much of the polluting industries or putting curbs on transport could hamper economic growth. But governments have to put their heads together and come up with innovative solutions in consultation with experts. Otherwise, the cycle will only repeat itself with the added danger now of the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbating conditions.

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