By Dr. Soma Marla
On November 3, 2023, New Delhi woke up to a thick layer of toxic smog, as IQ Air a Swiss-based air quality technology company, specializing in pollution and monitoring natural resources put the city’s air quality index (AQI) at611 in the ‘hazardous’ category. A reading of 0-50is considered good. Anything between 400 and 500is unhealthy. Schools across the city have been shuttered and construction activity halted as the city was declared the world’s most polluted city. Although this is a recurring annual event in North India (now joined by Mumbai) at the beginning of winter, both Union and state governments are resorting to short-term measures instead of finding long-term solutions.
New Delhi chokes usually around this time of the year as air quality falls to dangerous levels due to the burning of crop stubble in the bordering states of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. It was estimated that about 3,000 metric tonnes of air pollutants were emitted every day in Delhi, with a major contribution from vehicular pollution (67per cent), followed by coal based thermal power plants (12 per cent). Not surprising that there are nearly 80 lakh vehicles cruising around the city daily belching toxic exhausts. Besides, the city also generates much of its own pollution from industrial emissions — dust, burning of solid waste and dust from construction sites.
Air pollution in Delhi and NCR peaked at 20 times the permissible level of PM2.5 (a measure of airborne particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns). Therefore, poor air quality is affecting the lives of vulnerable populations —the younger children, the elderly, and those with comorbidities, chronic respiratory disease, or cardiac problems. Every third child in the national capital is asthmatic or suffers from respiratory problems. Apart from Delhi and Mumbai, residents of many other cities in the North are also breathing toxic air. As per the CPCB data of November 1, 2023, seven other cities are worse than Delhi with an AQI of 414, Hanumangarh in Rajasthan.
In Mumbai currently, 6,500 constructions are operational generating huge volumes of dust. Unlike Mumbai, where Arabian sea breezes to clear the air, Delhi is landlocked and takes a few weeks to return to normalcy. This year authorities woke up too late and Delhi and Mumbai have banned entry of big vehicles, put up air purifiers at major locations, temporarily closed thermal power plants, and banned constructions and open burning. Despite tall promises made by governments in Punjab, UP, and Haryana, satellite data mapped as of November 2, 2023, nearly 6,000 stubble burning incidents were recorded. Yet, no respite in the improvement of air quality is noticed. Putting up sprinklers or nets is not the solution and these measures are short-lived. Two major problems — vehicular emissions and the burning of paddy stubbles after harvesting in the agrarian belt surrounding Delhi— are to be addressed immediately.
The Indian automobile sector has grown into a Rs.8.7 lakh crore industry by producing 2.7 crore vehicles in the financial year of 2022-2023. In the number of production volumes, India ranks third in passenger vehicles (PV) and first in two wheelers globally. Not surprisingly nearly 80 lakh automobiles cruise around NCR region every day. Besides, the Union government’s allocation of crore rupees annually for the construction of a highway road network crisscrossing Delhi to Mumbai to Chennai. Even the huge automobile plants are owned by multinational companies and are just assembly plants importing engines to gearboxes from overseas. These plants are highly automated employing a few thousand workers thus generating minimum employment. Instead of promoting public transport and the metro network government is heavily bent on boosting the automobile industry.
Farmers generally follow the rice and wheat cropping system. The rice crop is harvested by the end of October and followed immediately by the sowing of the wheat crop. To prepare land and sow wheat crops immediately, farmers do not have time to let the harvested paddy stubbles decompose in the field. This is the chief reason why farmers burn the paddy stubbles to shorten the intermediate time gap. Farmer cannot afford tractors to plough the harvested crop residues back into the soil as the cost of diesel is high and increases the cost of production.
Indian Council of Agricultural Research Institute, Delhi has come out with a naturally degrading bio-compost enzyme mix. This microbiological cellulose degrading enzyme mix helps faster decomposition of stubbles. Indian soils are very poor inorganic carbon (Humus) due to excessive application of chemical fertilizers in crop cultivation. However, farmers have a short interval of ten to fifteen days to prepare land and sow the next wheat crop. The biodegrading kit is useful but takes nearly three to four weeks to decompose hard paddy stubbles. Promise by state and Union governments of provision of machines to plough back stubbles remained mere schemes on paper with no machines available to farmers in villages.
Rice cultivation is highly input intensive requiring large doses of irrigation, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. Rice is a water-guzzling crop requiring nearly 2,500 litres of water to produce one kilogram of rice grain. But canal irrigation supported by major dams like Bakrnangal provides only 21 per cent while the remaining 71 percent is met with pumping underground water. As a result of huge water footprints today groundwater has almost depleted in Punjab.
Besides heavy use of pesticides, weedicides severely contaminated water bodies, and groundwater with hazardous chemicals, apart from endangering the killing of birds and many farmers-friendly insects and microorganisms and entering the human food chain. We are exporting Basmati rice worth five billion dollars every year to other countries. Imagine how many cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water we are depleting from our soils due to export to other countries.
In the third volume of Capital, Karl Marx remarked, on how failure to recycle nutrients into soil created high pollution in London. To maintain natural balance and soil fertility food waste and crop waste should be recycled in the fields. Renowned ecological Marxist Bellamy Foster used the term “metabolic drift” to further comprehend the writings of Marx which are one of the classical foundations of environmental sociology.
Till the beginning of the Green Revolution, in the early 1970s farmers in Punjab, Haryana, and Western UP mostly cultivated wheat, Bajra, red gram, Urad, and mustard. These crops require nearly 28 per cent less water per hectare for cultivation as compared to rice. Union government and FCI mostly purchase wheat and paddy and no other crops from farmers. So, farmers resorted to rice-wheat cropping systems abandoning other crops. This seriously affected the nutritional security of rural Punjab as farmers do not consume millet, oils, and proteins in their diet.
The Union government imports vegetable oils and pulses (dal) by paying nearly17 billion dollars to Australia, Canada, Mozambique, Russia, Myanmar, and other countries to meet domestic shortages. By providing attractive MSPs as recommended by Dr M S Swaminathan Commission to millets, oilseeds, and dal, farmers will replace high water-guzzling rice with bajra, oil seeds, and dals. There should be a legal guarantee for the purchase of the other crops as well. This measure solves the groundwater crisis and averts environmentally hazardous stubble burning, making space for the next wheat crop.
The provision of attractive and guaranteed MSPs is not only environmentally beneficial but largely solves the problem of stubble burning in the crop belt surrounding Delhi. This would provide both income and nutritional security to small and tenant farmers apart from bringing self-sufficiency in vegetable oils and pulses. Instead of adopting short-term measures and promoting of automobile industry both Union and state governments should focus on long-term agro-ecological solutions to provide farmers income security as well as clean air for people. (IPA Service)