Delhi’s gas chamber
by G B Reddy on 19 Nov 2017 5 Comments

Many things can be done to bring down the levels of air pollution and smog in northern India. This writer first heard the words “aandhi (dust storms); dhund (mist/fog) and loo (heat wave), which describe various weather patterns in the north, whilst serving in Punjab in 1972. These are all annual recurring natural phenomena. The crucial difference is that with population multiplying over four times in the past 70 years, with associated human activities like increased agriculture, construction, industrial and infrastructure development, without regard for their adverse fallout, the situation has become alarming.


Unfortunately, political leaders and party spokespersons are shouting hoarse and indulging in blame games over air pollution in Delhi and the Indo-Gangetic plain, including Punjab, Haryana, -Western UP and even Pakistan’s Punjab. This scaremongering does not augur well for Delhi and its surrounding regions, especially in the winter season which is the best tourist season for foreigners to tour India. Any decline in tourists would have an adverse impact on the local economy.


According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Delhi was the most polluted city in the world in 2014. In 2016, WHO said Delhi was the eleventh-worst in urban air quality. During the autumn and winter months, some 500 million tons of crop residues are burnt, and winds blow from India's north and northwest towards the sea. According to one estimate, air pollution causes the death of about 10,500 people in Delhi every year.


Pollution is a complex mix of human activities (vehicle emissions, industrial emissions, construction, residential fuel burning, domestic use of air conditioners, refrigerators, thermal power stations) and natural sources like carbon dioxide emissions from green cover, dust and sea salt. Also, winter meteorological conditions like cool air causes “inversions” that stagnate the air and trap pollution close to the ground.


Air flow patterns from Afghanistan and Pakistan pick up emissions as they move over the densely urbanised regions of Punjab and Haryana where farmers burn the straw in their fields and pull this pollution into Delhi. Pre-monsoon dust storms add to air pollution in the region.


Then, the National Capital Region (NCR) generates 10,000 tons per day of municipal solid waste, much of which is eventually burned, adding particulate pollution to the air. Delhi also has more than 7.4 million vehicles on its roads, with 1,200 added daily.


This writer is a practising farmer since 1995, and worked at the National Institute of Rural Development, which promoted vermi-composting (use of hay, crushed sugar cane etc), but had to stop using labour after government-mandated higher rates made it costly. I asked villagers keeping animals to remove the stubble and use it as feed, free, but there are no takers. So burning was the easy route. Since rice crop is limited around Hyderabad and there is no air circulation effect on the climate and temperatures are high even in winter, the inversion effect is minimal and restricted to few days in January.


Solid Waste Management (SWM) is an essential service provided by municipal authorities to keep urban centres clean. With rapid urbanisation, the country is facing a massive waste management challenge. Over 377 million urban people live in 7,935 towns and cities and generate 62 million tonnes of municipal solid waste per annum. Only 43 million tonnes (MT) is collected, 11.9 MT is treated and 31 MT is dumped in landfill sites.


Municipal waste – garbage – can be profitably used to produce compost manure and even energy. Waste-to-Energy (WtE) involves using technology to compress and dispose waste, while generating energy.


However, the proposal to set up a waste-to-energy plant in Bandhwari village by civic bodies of Gurugram and Faridabad has been stalled by villagers. This was supposed to be Haryana’s first integrated solid waste management project, to be executed on Output-Based Incentive (OBI) with an non-government organization, to generate a minimum of 10 MW of power.


None of the past regimes in the capital have taken appropriate pro-active measures to mitigate the menace of air pollution. Instead of addressing the issue in a holistic manner, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal first played to the gallery by imposing an “Odd-Even” rule for vehicle usage, and is now voicing concern about stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana. Media reports suggest 20% of air pollution over Delhi is due to stubble burning from agricultural lands of neighboring states. What about the 80%?


Hay or stubble - grass, legumes, or other herbaceous plants - can be profitably used as animal fodder, particularly for grazing animals such as cattle, horses, goats, and sheep. Then there are various methods to convert crop residues into compost for gardening and even handicrafts. Burning stubble is as good as burning money.


Northern India needs local solutions to cut, collect and roll crop residue into bales for a variety of ‘value addition’ purposes. Balers are manufactured in India by firms close to Delhi, and also all over India. The most common type of baler is the round baler. It produces cylinder-shaped round or rolled bales.


Stubble can be converted into organic compost for agriculture and domestic gardening by three methods: aerobic (use oxygen and bacteria), anaerobic (natural process in landfills – not recommended as it produces bad smell) and windrow composting (efficient).


Farmers who use high-cost harvesters can use low-cost baler machinery to avoid burning stubble. If input costs increase due to use of balers, minimum support price should also be increased, or baler equipment should be made available at subsidized rates.


The levels of smog and air pollution can only be addressed on a holistic basis by cooperation between the Central and State governments of Punjab, Haryana, UP, Rajasthan and Delhi. Effective policies and strategies to mitigate pollution levels must be formulated and implemented effectively, including curbs on construction activities and vehicle explosion.

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