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The Invisible Genocide

SK Goyal, New Delhi
03/11/2017   0 Comments

 The air pollution in Delhi and the NCR has been the subject of extreme anxiety to the concerned authorities. Despite their utmost efforts, the Air Quality Index in the National Capital has not reached the tolerable level. Though the AQI recorded 321 on October 26, it was still in the “Very Poor” category. The air quality in two NCR towns Ghaziabad and Faridabad had the “severe” level. The Supreme Court has taken a slew of measures to control the air pollution in Delhi and the NCR.
Each Diwali and the days following it, a dense fog shrouds Delhi and the NCR turning the National Capital’s air quality hazardously polluted. High pollution levels continue to peak to dangerous levels during this period with a thick blanket of smog enveloping the city and adjoining areas.
Last year many announcements were made by the Government as the Capital struggled to breathe during this Diwali period but little has changed at the ground level. This year, the Environment Ministry introduced a plan to curb the pollution and a Graded Response Action Plan to achieve the desired results.
Various measures to tackle the severe, very poor and poor levels for particulate matter 2.5 and PM 10 are to be followed by the authorities.
The Delhi High Court, on September 25, 2017 issued a slew of directions to the States of Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, highlighting the urgency of the need to check air pollution arising out of crop burning.

The Court took suo motu cognizance of the deteriorating air quality in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR). During a recent hearing, the Bench comprising Justice S. Ravindra Bhat and Justice Sunil Gaur noted that a major component contributing to air pollution in Delhi during the months of October and March each year is the burning of agricultural waste, including plant residue/stubble while harvesting the Kharif and Rabi crops.
The Bench further took into account the affidavits filed by the States, noting that the “emission of particulate matter from this stubble burning is beyond any acceptable human endurance, or danger levels”. It opined that the effects of such practices can be “traumatic for most people and catastrophic for some”.
Steps directed to be taken include the implementation of orders on the issue by respective States with a weekly compliance report to the Court. The States will issue directions to concerned companies to discharge CSR by collecting crop residue from farmers against payments, and they will implement the Graded Response Action Plan issued on 12/1/2017. The Environment Ministry will obtain weekly reports on steps taken to prevent crop burning and the States will inform the public to take preventive measures to safeguard their health.

The Central Pollution Control Board made a presentation to the Delhi Government that crop burning in 2017 was already worse than last year.
High Pollution levels i.e. P M 2 tend to make breathing difficult when they enter the lungs and can also increase the level of carbon dioxide in blood stream. People cannot step out facing breathing difficulties and burning sensation in the eyes. It is not good for the image of the country’s Capital. If you cannot have a pollution-free city, what is the value of development and progress?
Crop burning in the neighbouring States, waste burning in Delhi and the NCR, emissions from heavy, polluting diesel vehicles generating sets and the coal-based thermal power plants, construction dust, polluting industries, unfettered building activity and commercialization are enough to kill citizens, slowly but steadily. Two largest sources of PM 2.5 pollution here are road dust (38 per cent) and vehicles (20 per cent). A 2014 WHO study ranked Delhi as the most polluted city in the world.
The Supreme Court has directed to repair and build new pavements and vacuuming of roads.  But for Delhi’s extensive road network, the Municipal Corporations have a very few sweeping machines. Lack of land has derailed plans to construct multilevel parking lots.
Delhi has more than one crore vehicles and a few lakhs enter the city from nearby towns daily. The number of public transport buses is far less than the requirements.
The low visibility on the ground on account of smog leads to traffic pile-ups across Delhi and the NCR resulting in many accidents. Many flights at Delhi airport are delayed or diverted.
The pollution in Delhi has been rising since 2010 and in 2016, it was the worst smog in decades choking the city and turning it into a gas chamber. The low wind speed and high moisture contributed to thick smog.
Hospital emergencies witnessed a sudden increase in the number of patients suffering from respiratory distress. OPDs were also flooded with patients having breathing difficulties and underlying illness.
Many residents flocked to purchase air purifiers for their homes and cars with their sales jumping by 400 per cent.  Others rushed to buy surgical masks costing Rs. 100 each but sold for Rs 150 per piece by chemists to make a killing out of citizens’ suffering. In reality, these masks, despite their popularity, are useless against smog and pollution haze.
The Delhi Chief Minister announced emergency steps in the wake of alarming pollution levels and thick smog cover in the Capital. The Government closed the schools for three days, shut down the thermal plant for 10 days, banned the use of Gensets for 10 days, construction and demolition for five days and introduced the “odd-even”, experts say, scheme for private cars. But such stopgap measures, experts say, will not suffice if the smog keeps returning.
There will be a huge economic cost of keeping construction work suspended through winter. Tourists and business visitors will keep away from a smoggy area and poor visibility can throw air and train schedules out of gear.
Globally, emergency action kicks in the moment pollution hits the worst air quality level for three consecutive days to reduce peak levels to protect children and those suffering from heart and respiratory problems. In Delhi the choking haze of pollution lasted much longer than usual.
Smoke from stubble burning in Punjab, Haryana and Western UP is among the main contributors to the massive smog cover that envelopes Delhi every year in winter.
Farmers find it difficult to plough the crop residue back into the soil and resort to burning the paddy straw to clear the field for the next crop. It is mostly done at night to escape attention. With no economically viable solutions worked out for removing paddy residue, fines have failed to deter farmers from taking to burning.
The Government needs to look beyond fiats and fines and explore the option of financial incentives to clear the air.
In the same vein, trucks not destined for Delhi continue to transit through the Capital in the absence of alternative routes. There is dire need for holistic solutions that address the root cause of the problem.
A government scientist has said that crop fires contributed as much as 70 % of the pollution load in Delhi. The study links straw burning to cancer and kidney damage. The Union Environment Secretary and a Haryana Minister, however, put the said estimate at 20 per.
At least half a dozen thermal power plants in UP and Haryana within a radius of 50 km are also contributing to the Capital’s air pollution through the emission of dangerous toxins. Gas availability has to improve to reduce the dependence on thermal power production and give clean power to citizens.
The matter has gone to higher courts with the National Green Tribunal directing the Delhi Government to sprinkle  water on roads to contain dust and use choppers if need be. It also directed the Government to enforce the ban on old diesel vehicles and also ensure that no construction material is left on the road. It ordered that no stone crusher or brick kiln will operate for one week and slammed the neighbouring States for not taking prior steps to control crop burning. The NGT has directed the authorities to sort out administrative issues among the Centre, the Delhi Government and the local bodies to tackle the problem.
The Delhi High Court has rapped the Government for the dereliction of duty for not taking action to reduce the air pollution despite terming it “genocide”.
The Supreme Court has asked the Central Government to devise CMP to control pollution in Delhi and the NCR and apprise it about the policy to tackle the issue of rising pollution. It has also sought a blueprint from the Centre on how it proposes to tackle a pollution disaster like the one faced by Delhi and quipped: “Are you waiting for people to start dying?”
This year the Supreme Court imposed a ban on the sale of fire crackers citing the high level of toxins in the air.
Poor governance and the lack of enforcement despite stiff laws and court directives have kept alive the crop burning, toxic trucks slipping through border gaps, the burning of waste at the dump fills and the flouting of construction norms by builders in the NCR.
Authorities are just throwing up their hands citing the shortage of resources and staff and the lack of coordination. The Delhi Government’s turf war with the Centre has left an impact on enforcement machinery.
It is not just the Delhi-NCR region that has faced smog and high pollution levels in the past. As per NASA satellite pictures, the entire northern plains from Faisalabad in Pakistan to Patna in Bihar were shrouded in smog. Haze was also visible in Gujarat
The thick blanket of smog is an ominous sign for the Taj Mahal at Agra and could undo the effects of the ongoing “mud therapy”.
Experts say people and nations have exploited nature and its resources blindly in the name of development. The problem of climate change is due to the imbalance in nature and global warming. In the current scenario, research into biodiversity is important to achieve global food, nutrition, health and environment security.
The two droughts in certain parts of India and excess rains in other areas on account of freak climate are a direct consequence of global warming.
We are also facing large-scale pollution of rivers with industrial effluents and sewage drains empting their waste into them. One has to see to believe the froth, stink and pollution in the Yamuna flowing in Delhi with the Government spending crores on river cleaning. The vanishing forest cover too has adversely affected the environment.
Nature sometimes returns its fury in the form of cyclones, earthquakes and floods. Some experts believe that climate changes are going to stay till remedial measures are taken by all the nations.
 The Climate Change Conference was held in Morocco last year on 12 Himalayan States that face the impact since these are warming faster than the global average and are not yet in focus even though glaciers there are melting at a fast rate.
With air pollution growing worse year after year, it is time to make substantial investment in cleaning the environment. Many solutions are well known. Polluters need to be punished and roads vacuum cleaned. Modern waste management has to be introduced and public transport must be beefed up.
Farmers can be helped to make money from paddy straw instead of burning it and explore growing pulses. The Central Government must bring inter-State and inter-ministerial coordination to improve the air quality and make the Swachh Bharat Mission meaningful.


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