Conservation news

Is northern India better prepared for air pollution this winter?

Every winter, Delhi witnesses severe levels of air pollution. Photo by Sumita Roy Dutta/Wikimedia Commons.

  • Over the last few years, Delhi and adjoining regions in north India have consistently faced severe levels of air pollution during the winter season, from November to February. Overall air quality in Delhi this year has already dipped into the “poor” and “very poor” categories.
  • Following criticism from courts and orders to devise comprehensive plans, India’s environment ministry and state governments, including those of Delhi and nearby regions, have formulated plans to tackle air pollution.
  • They include satellite-based air pollution monitoring to check burning of crop residue in the winter, and strengthening of monitoring pollution from vehicles, among others.
  • But some environmentalists feel that more needs to be done to curb the air pollution.

Winter in north India is almost here, and social media is already buzzing with pictures of crop residue burning in the country’s northern states.

Over the last few years, the national capital, New Delhi, and adjoining regions have consistently faced severe levels of air pollution during the winter months from November to February. The authorities seem better prepared this year after coming under fire from courts for failing to control the pollution levels. But it isn’t enough as the air quality seems to be steadily deteriorating and Delhi could soon resemble what a top official called “a gas chamber.”

Overall air quality in Delhi was in the “poor” and “very poor” category last week, per the central government’s System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR). These conditions are only expected to deteriorate in the days ahead.

Curbing pollution

Following the criticism from courts and the orders to devise comprehensive plans, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) is working with the governments of Delhi and nearby states on plans to tackle the air pollution.

One such scheme, the “Comprehensive action plan for air pollution control in Delhi and NCR (National Capital Region)” that is led by the MoEFCC, has already kicked off in the capital.

Under this program, a graded response action plan is being implemented to ensure appropriate and coordinated responses by different authorities as and when air pollution rises. The plan also includes satellite-based air pollution monitoring to check stubble burning during the winter months; strengthening of monitoring pollution from vehicles; action against visibly polluting vehicles, including penalties; an extensive awareness drive against polluting vehicles; checking overloading of vehicles; and facilitating improvement in public transport, among other actions.

The coal-fired Badarpur power plant, Delhi’s biggest, running since 1973 and identified as one of the major sources of pollution in the Delhi-NCR area by the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority, was permanently closed down recently to control pollution.

On Oct. 23, the Supreme Court of India, while hearing a case that sought a nationwide ban on the manufacturing and sale of firecrackers, popular during festivals like Diwali, passed a series of measures to regulate it to tackle air pollution.

Though it stopped short of a nationwide ban on firecracker sales, the court ruled that only those firecrackers that are less polluting and within the prescribed noise levels and emission norms would be allowed for sale. The court also banned online sales of firecrackers and warned that any “e-commerce companies found selling crackers online will be hauled up for contempt of court and the Court may also pass, in that eventuality, orders of monetary penalties as well.”

It also ruled that people would be allowed to set off firecrackers only from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Diwali and other festivals like Gurpurab, and from 11:55 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. for New Year and Christmas festivities. “Even for marriages and other occasions, sale of improved crackers and green [reduced emissions] crackers is only permitted,” the court ruled.

In the same ruling, it banned the “manufacture, sale and use of joined firecrackers (series crackers or laris) … as the same causes huge air, noise and solid waste problems.”

But the ruling on firecrackers may still not be enough to deal with the mammoth issue of air pollution.

Delhi’s environment minister, Imran Hussain, recently released a NASA image of north India that showed widespread crop burning — a common agricultural practice where farmers burn crop residue to quickly prepare fields for sowing the new crop. Hussain called for an immediate end to the burning, and warned for serious health hazards for the entire northern India region if the practice continued.

Hussain also questioned why the problem continued to be ignored despite widespread public understanding of the consequences.

He said the graded response action plan was already in force and called on Delhi residents to minimize the local air pollution. He said there would be zero tolerance for garbage and demanded that all construction material be covered to prevent dust getting into the air. Hussain also said teams had been formed to carry out surprise inspections for violations.

“Very sad that central, Punjab and Haryana governments did absolutely nothing for the farmers,” Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, tweeted on Oct. 19. “As a result, the farmers will suffer on one hand and Delhi will become a gas chamber soon.”

Crop residue burning in northern India is considered a major factor for the air pollution in the Delhi-National Capital Region area. Image by Neil Palmer (CIAT) via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

More needs to be done

Environmentalists say the burning of stubble isn’t the only source of air pollution, and that not much is being done to help farmers move away from the practice.

“The satellite data available so far shows a reduction in stubble burning but the crop season started late this year. Stubble burning is now picking up the pace and may increase in days to come,” said Devinder Sharma, an agriculture policy expert. “But the point is that farmers have started doing their bit even when governments and people at large don’t want to do anything for farmers. Every disaster including air pollution has become an opportunity where machines like happy seeders” — which can sow seeds in stubble-covered land — “are being imposed on farmers. It is shoddy planning, nothing else. Basically, no one is interested in farmers of Punjab if there is no pollution in Delhi.”

The experts also say it’s not just Delhi that suffers from air pollution, but the whole of northern India. The air quality recorded earlier this week was poor across several cities in the region, including Agra, Baghpat, Bhiwadi, Bulandshahr, Muzaffarnagar, Muzaffarpur and Varanasi, according to the national air quality bulletin from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

A May 2018 report from the World Health Organization listed India as having 14 of the world’s 15 most polluted cities in terms of the levels of particulate matter, especially Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5. Similar reports published by the WHO in 2014 and 2016 showed that most of the world’s most polluted cities were in India.

In April 2018, the MoEFCC released a draft National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), the first such plan to address the issue at the national level. Six months on, however, the NCAP is yet to be finalized. It was heavily criticized by experts who felt it lacked clear pollution reduction targets, city or regional milestones, and powers to ensure compliance.

But the NCAP isn’t the only plan. In the past few years, ever since the air pollution problem captured the limelight, several plans have been formed.

In December 2017, for instance, a task force led by Nripendra Misra, principal secretary to the prime minister of India, released a 12-point draft plan to tackle pollution in the Delhi-NCR region. In July 2018, the national think tank, NITI Aayog, released a booklet suggesting a list of 15 action points across a range of industries and sectors to control air pollution.

A recent report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) found that Tehri Hydro Development Corporation’s (THDC) proposed Khurja coal-fired power plant in the state of Uttar Pradesh would push up the cost of electricity and increase air pollution in Delhi.

The report recommended that the Khurja proposal be re-evaluated in light of severe air pollution levels in Delhi; the real threat of government financing wasted on another expensive stranded asset; increasingly cheaper renewable energy options; and India’s ambitious sustainable energy goals.

Tim Buckley, director of energy finance studies at the IEEFA, said electricity users, the state and central governments, and the project’s lenders should not be burdened with yet another expensive boondoggle at a time when local residents need cleaner energy options.

“Delhi already has the dubious reputation of having the worst air pollution of any city in the world. If the Khurja coal plant is built as planned near Delhi, this will increase the impact on local residents, emergency workers and the local government,” Buckley told reporters on Oct. 23.

“The Khurja power plant was feasible when first proposed eight years ago in response to power supply shortages and outages across northern India, but technology has moved on,” he added. “The Khurja proposal relies on a prohibitively expensive 900-kilometer-long [560-mile] rail haul to bring coal to the plant. Additionally, the market price of coal continues to increase globally. The economics of the project look dim. The Khurja proposal must be re-evaluated.”

Whether the polluting-curbing plans being implemented by authorities will bring some respite to people this winter will become clearer in the coming months.

Every winter, Delhi suffers severe levels of air pollution. Image by Sumita Roy Dutta via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

This story was first published on Oct. 25, 2018, by Mongabay India.