By Dr. Arun Mitra
Like the past several years, we are once again faced with a situation where air quality index has crossed dangerous level. Those already suffering from respiratory illnesses are at the worst receiving end. One such serious situation occurred in 1998 when whole of Punjab was engulfed with smoke pushing large number of sick people into serious trouble. Every year we witness smoke in atmosphere in the months of October and November. The agricultural and medical professionals have held several rounds of discussions on the subject with a view to ameliorate the situation.
Air quality is the primary factor to affect our health. During summer season the air tends to go up in the atmosphere. But because of fall in temperature during October and November the particles do not rise up in the atmosphere. They get suspended and mix with the vapours. These particles mainly come from vehicular emissions, industrial effluents and smoke coming out of burning of paddy straw in the fields. Low wind speed during this period and dry weather aggravates the problem.
As per the Environmental Protection Agency (US), the Air Quality Index (AQI) is calculated on the basis of five major pollutants – the ground level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. The AQI levels have been graded in the range of 0-500. AQI level from 0-50 are satisfactory levels and pose little or no risk. Moderate AQI is from 51-100. This poses risk to very small number of people particularly those who are sensitive to ozone. The levels from 101-150 can be harmful to persons who are already suffering from respiratory problems or heart diseases; children and elderly are at higher risk.
From 151-200, these are unhealthy levels for every citizen while the sensitive groups may experience more serious effects. Levels between 201-300 are health alert for more serious effects. AQI levels beyond 300 are an emergency situation. In this context the levels had gone up to 999 in the Punjabi Bagh area of Delhi on 8th November 2017. This is a cause of extremely serious concern. The level has already reached 300 in Delhi and 250 in Ludhiana in Punjab.
Smog causes feeling of suffocation which occurs due to relative lowering of oxygen level in the surrounding air. The pollutants in the smog irritate respiratory system and cause irritation of throat and cough. There may be an uncomfortable sensation in chest. The ozone in the smog can reduce lung functions and make it more difficult to breathe deeply and vigorously. There is aggravation of asthma which may require medication. Ozone makes people more sensitive to allergens, which are the most common triggers for asthma attacks. Ozone may aggravate chronic lung diseases such as emphysema and bronchitis and reduce the immune system’s ability to fight off bacterial infections in the respiratory system. Repeated short-term ozone damage to children’s developing lungs may lead to reduced lung function in adulthood.
Exposure to particulate matter can cause wheezing and similar symptoms in people with asthma or sensitive airways. Particulate matter can serve as a vector for toxic air pollutants. Carbon Monoxide affects oxygenation of Haemoglobin by forming Carboxy-Haemoglobin.
As a result of all these there is reduction in working capacity of an individual leading to loss of man days Children are not able to attend schools. Medical advisory in extreme circumstances is to avoid outdoor activity. This leads to fall in productivity.
The time gap between harvesting of paddy and sowing of wheat crop is less. Therefore easiest method the farmers find is to burn the straw and then plough the field for the next crop. According to Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Department Punjab, the high temperature over the soil because of burning of straw residue destroys useful microorganisms causing huge loss of nitrogen, phosphorous, potash and many beneficial micro nutrients. By burning approximately 3 tonnes of paddy straw produced in one acre area there occurs loss of 1200 kilos of organic carbon, 16.5 kilos of nitrogen, 6.9 kilos of phosphorous, 7.5 kilo potash and 3.6 kilos of sulphur.
Economically this loss is equivalent to rupees 3500 per acre. As per estimates there is loss of macro and micro nutrients to the tune of more than Rs.1000/- crores in the state of Punjab per year due to burning of wheat and paddy straw. The paddy cultivable area in Punjab is about 70 lakh acre. On an average there is 30 quintal of yield per acre which means 21 crore quintal of paddy is produced in the state. Different agricultural machinery required for management of straw in situ as per the NGT guidelines will cost around 1600 crores of rupees to Punjab.
It is not correct to put whole blame on farmers without addressing their grievances. The farmers feel that by delaying the sowing of next crop they are losing money as this causes reduction in yield. They need to be compensated economically to cut down this loss. A bonus of Rs.100/- per quintal to the farmer will cost the government around 2100 crores rupees. The overall cost has to be evaluated with the health cost borne by the people which could be much higher because it involves cost on disease, loss of man days, loss of production, loss of schooling and mental stress. The state and the central governments should share this responsibility to cover this.
Farmers have to be convinced that paddy straw should be ploughed in situ as it will increase fertility of the soil. Agricultural experts feel that it should be utilized and not destroyed or taken away from the field for any other purpose. Happy seeder, a special machine to harvest and then cut the straw of the paddy into small pieces so that these can be ploughed in the fields is a very effective. Small and medium farmers find it difficult to purchase this. To meet their needs the government has allocated 685 crores of rupees for this purpose. The government has allocated subsidy to the extent of 80 per cent where the farmers have formed groups and 50 per cent for single farmers. This is a very welcome step and we expect positive outcome in coming years. In addition other urgent remedial measures have to be taken. The industry needs to be regulated firmly to reduce the effluents. Vehicular emissions have to be brought down. Let us hope that odd and even scheme for vehicles in Delhi produces positive results. (IPA Service)