Indian Government Steps Into Delhi Air Pollution Brouhaha – Too Late For This Year’s Emergency

After weeks of inaction, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has signalled that it will create a comprehensive law to halt rice stubble burning in rural areas of northern India, where drifting smoke from thousands of fires is a major contributor to Delhi’s annual autumn air pollution emergencies.

But experts remain skeptical, stating that there are already enough laws on the books and yet another one could just cause more confusion; what is really missing, they say, is strong central government action.

India’s solicitor general announced the plans for the law on stubble burning in a hearing on Monday before the Supreme Court, as the Court again reviewed the state of  government planning and options for judicial intervention.

“The Centre has taken a holistic view of the matter and now a comprehensive law is being planned with a permanent body with the participation of neighbouring states,” said Tushar Mehta, the solicitor general for the government at the hearing, referring to the federal government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Recent view of air pollution haze over Delhi

The Government announcement on Monday came after weeks in which Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kerjiwal, pledged to declare “war” on air pollution caused by the crop stubble burning, but so far has failed to advance his attack from a high-tech “war room” in the city itself.

India’s Supreme Court also has championed solutions – none of which have really been implemented.  Meanwhile air pollution levels have already mounted dangerously in the city and throughout the northern India region, as a result of the unabated crop burning.

This is happening even as India also struggles to manage one of the world’s highest rates of COVID-19, a respiratory infection whose hallmark is breathing difficulties even in the best of air quality.

Critics skeptical 

Against those setbacks and a budding crisis, critics remained doubtful about whether government action could even be effective at this late date.  Historically, the prime minister has been largely indifferent to the chronic air pollution hazard of India’s northern region and Delhi itself.

“The problem lies in the fact that political will is missing when it comes to implementation,” Polash Mukherjee, environment health and air pollution management researcher, told The Tribune newspaper. “Having said that, it will be welcome if there is a specific provision to deal with crop residue burning at a national level, and not leave it contained as a problem in Punjab and Haryana only. Satellite images from central and southern India show the extent of crop residue burning in these parts as well, which have an impact on local climate resilience.”

“Let’s see what they come up with,” said Vimlendu Jha, founder and executive director of environmental non-profit Swechha, adding, “anything will be better than the one-member judicial committee.”

“Hazardous” air quality in Anand Vihar, Delhi: 9pm CET 27 October 2020. (

He was referring to the October 16 move by the Supreme Court to appoint a single judge to monitor and manage crop stubble burning with a team of volunteers from the National Cadet Corps and Bharat Scouts and Guides. On Monday, the court suspended the order after Modi finally said he would act. The Court said the October 16 order would be “kept in abeyance”.

Jha said that that any plan devised by the central government would have funding as well as legally binding provisions. “And I hope it’s not just the stubble burning issue, but an overall airshed approach,” he added.

“I hope that this is not just a reactionary step that creates a hastily conceived new agency,”  said Dr Santosh Harish, Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research who specialises in energy and environment policy and air quality governance in India. “The present crisis could provide us an opportunity to make much needed institutional changes for more effective coordination and implementation at the NCR level. While various powers can be provided to a new agency on paper, several other factors determine how those powers get used– funds and staffing being two critical inputs,” he added.

Experts remain doubtful that any sort of  “comprehensive law”, even if enacted immediately, would be able to dampen down the farm fires, midway through the stubble burning season.

Sunil Dahiya, an analyst at Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, said: “Coming up with new legislation alone is not going to help clean the air. Actual action on pollution sources is needed.”

Smoke Envelopes Delhi and Northern India

NASA satellite data began showing fires and small spikes in fine particulate matter (known as PM2.5) in early October.

Now, thousands of crop stubble fires are already burning across the states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in the north Indian plains, and smoke blowing into Delhi is driving up air pollution levels to emergency levels.

Delhi’s Air Quality Index (AQI) levels on Sunday were 303 – considered to be ‘very poor’ according to the government’s SAFAR app India Air Quality service – but had improved slightly to 256, with some wind movement later in the week.

Crop burning contributes about 5-8% of Delhi’s pollution over the course of the year. But in  the late autumn peak period, crop fires can contribute to as much as 40% of Delhi’s daily air pollution load – due to a combination of unfavorable geography, wind direction, and the lack of rainfall.  Earlier this week, Indian Express reported that according to SAFAR, the Ministry of Earth Sciences’ air quality monitor, “farm fires accounted for 22% of the air pollution in the national capital on Saturday, and 17% on Sunday.” It seems that any measures to deal with crop stubble, if successful, would be significant.

“Managing for winter burning of crop residue has to be a year-long effort and cannot be started in September each year,” said Karthik Ganesan, Research Fellow at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water. “No matter what the size of the committee, unless we clearly have a consultation process that captures inputs from relevant stakeholders – and most importantly the farmers – and put up final recommendations for public review, these are unlikely to achieve any more success than past efforts,” he added.

The “Wild Card of Meteorology” Likely To Decide  

Delhi’s AQI levels have already breached 300 several times in October. Before the fires began, the AQI dipped to 41 on Sept 1, 2020, a record low since 2015 when AQI monitoring began at national level. By the time agricultural fires have peaked, these index usually cross levels well beyond 500.

And with October this year showing many more early fires, some experts fear pollution could be worse.

An analysis by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), for instance, stated that 9,000+ fires had been observed by satellite data covering the period between September 1 and October 20. Last autumn, in comparison, farm fires peaked to around 4,000 per day by October 31. The day after crop residue burning in the States of Punjab and Haryana accounted for 44% of total air pollution, Central Pollution Control Board Member Secretary Prashant Gargava stated.

On the other hand, since the fires began a little bit earlier this year, prevailing winds may yet blow some of the smoke away from the city, other observers say. In addition, more mechanical machinery has been introduced to grind, rather than burn the stubble quickly, so that farmers can plant their next crop right away.

In addition, there has been a 10% reduction in plantations of the kinds of industrial rice stalks, that are the hardest to manage: more local basmati rice varieties are being grown, less of which is burnt. “We believe that this year should see lower levels of burning and more spread out burning” depending on the wild card of meteorology, said Karthik Ganesan & Tanushree Ganguly, researchers at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water.

No National Plan For Integrated Air Pollution Solution 

Indeed, with no accountability and no political party at the state or central government levels right up to the Prime Minister, a population larger than that of the entire continent of north America now depends on meteorology to save it from disease, disability and death triggered by toxic air.

New Delhi, India – Toxic smog blocks out the sun.

“On one hand we have courts which have good intentions, but not the expertise, on the other, the government and its large cohort of expert institutions, which have the expertise but not the intention to solve this issue,” said Dr Amrita Bahl, another CFA board member.

Said Vimlendu Jha: “Each year the Supreme Court passes strong worded observations, reprimanding every stakeholder, and this year has gone a step ahead and appointed a retired Justice.

“Rather than creating new mechanisms and institutions, it is important to strengthen existing ones, collectively, collaboratively and responsibly. We need to fix accountability of our government servants and departments. Stubble burning in particular and air pollution in general cannot and will not be fixed unless we relook at our agricultural practices including crop choices, construction and demolition regime, production and management of waste in our cities and its disposal, enhancing public transport.”

Delhi’s ‘GreenWar Room’ Fails To Advance To Battlefield

Just two weeks ago, Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kerjriwal had said that he was setting up a ‘war-room’ to fight pollution and said he would be promoting a miracle composting agent amongst his rural neighboring states, which could rapidly degrade the rigid rice stalks that are the lion’s share of the crop stubble problem.

These cheap, easy and accessible Pusa decomposer pills that the Delhi chief minister has been promoting convert the stalks into valuable fertilizer as well – something that should be an incentive to stop farmers burning.

Delhi sky on a clean air day earlier this summer, when the COVID-19 lockdown brought many factories, transport and construction – which are other major sources of the city’s air pollution.

But although his Green War Room is up and running with technical experts who meet every day in an office equipped with large screens displaying NASA-ISRO images to monitor real-time data and hotspot conditions, actually moving out into the smoke-filled rural regions with the Pusa decomposer pellets or other solutions, isn’t being given much importance, said one insider, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

And it remains unclear how readily Delhi’s political leaders could really influence policies among their rural neighboring states. It is equally unclear if Kerjiwal will be getting much backing from Prime Minister Narendra Modi – a political rival.

Modi has remained largely indifferent to the criticism heaped upon him nationally and globally over his failure to take action on practical matters like stubble burning – as well as the bigger picture of expanded dirty coal power production. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is already grappling with farmers agitating against the passage of three agriculture bills in Parliament last month.

1.67 million Indians Died from Air Pollution in 2019

The latest air pollution crisis comes as the The State of Global Air 2020 was released, showing that 1.67 million Indians died from air pollution in 2019. That represents an increase of 61% over deaths in India attributable to air pollution nearly a decade ago in 2010. It’s also roughly one-quarter of the total deaths attributable to air pollution worldwide.

In addition, India has been steadily recording average annual increases in PM2.5 pollution since 2010, contrary to the federal government’s claims that annual air pollution levels are falling. This is despite marked regional reductions in pollution levels in east Asia driven primarily by declines in China.

Last October, the University of Chicago’s Air Quality Life (AQLI) tool showed the average citizen living in the Indo-Gangetic plain region – comprising the states of Bihar, Delhi, and West Bengal, among others – can expect to lose about seven years of life expectancy because air quality fails to meet the WHO guideline for fine particulate pollution. Particulate pollution rose 72 per cent from 1998 to 2016 in an area that is home to around 40% of India’s population.

Solutions Abound – Incentives For Alternative & More Nutritious Grains    

Even if the Pusa decomposer doesn’t gain rapid, widespread acceptance, there are plenty of other solutions that would likely trigger rapid change. Most of them revolve around money.

In 2019, stepping in once more to the national vacuum in air quality decision-making, the Supreme Court ordered governments in the three states with the highest level of fires to actually pay farmers a set sum, per paddy crop, as an incentive for not burning their crop stubble. The initiative was opposed even by environmentalists – and later set aside.

“There should be deterrence but not a perverse incentive. That works against the polluter pays principle,” Sunita Narain, Director General of Centre for Science and Environment told The Indian Express.

However, environmentalists say that positive incentives for farmers to cease growing water-hungry rice – and shift fields to other types of nutritious grains would be a welcome corrective to distortions in existing policies.

Punja, India – Crop burning reduces soil fertility and worsens air pollution

The hybrid rice varieties that have come to predominate in the region, are heavily subsidized by the government.  But the rice also depletes the water tables of the water-scarce Punjab region – while much of the production actually creates a huge surplus that goes for export.

Rather than subsidizing the wrong crop in the wrong place, they say, the government should incentivize farmers to shift their fields back into more of the indigenous grains that used to predominate on India’s northern plains, use far less of precious water reserves.

Minimum support prices are an easy way to guide farmers on what they should grow. The Ministry of Food and Agriculture could trigger a shift in growing patterns simply by offering higher subsidies via minimum support prices, said agricultural economist  Ashok Gulati, in one recent blog.

Growing patterns of the traditional crops, and the stubble they produce, both would give farmers a longer window of time to clear their fields so they don’t have to burn their fields in a rush to prepare a field for the next planting season.

These crops also are healthier. They include nutrition dense grains like pearl millet (bajra), finger millet (ragi), sorghum (jowar), barley, rye and maize (makki) – all of which are native to the area. Punjab was once known for its makki ki roti, a flat bread made from cornmeal.

Gulati referred to the potential to incentivize corn as a “crop for clean air.” But the same solution could be used for traditional grains that have a high iron content and are perfect for a country that harbors one quarter of the world’s cases of anaemia.

“Stubble burning needs a well-understood multi-pronged strategy: easy access to happy seeders and other in-situ methods, markets for collected stubble, and a shift away from paddy cultivation in the long term. And yet, the execution by the state governments remains poor. The ban on burning was always going to have a limited impact, and we should not expect new committees to monitor the situation to yield very much,”  said Harish.

Zero Till  – Another Immediate Option. 

Tere is yet another solution, which if implemented sincerely and rapidly can still firefight and help north India from suffocating this winter – even at this late date. It has been around since 2016, with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) advising and propounding this simple, zero-till practice. 2016 was the year NASA reported the higher number of crop residue fires.

If adopted, this would bring emissions down by almost 80%. It can also increase productivity and maximize profits for farmers, according to a 2019 study published in Science.

No-till practices that leave straw on top of the soil as mulch can preserve soil moisture and improve soil quality and crop yields in the long-run, said Principal Scientist of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center M.L Jat, who co-authored the study.

All these are solutions that have existed for years, but the lack of both the state and central government’s intentions have continued to allow north India’s residents to suffer the severe pollution levels that we breathe each winter. Last winter, the Supreme Court had pulled up the chief secretaries of all the surrounding states, berating them for allowing stubble burning.

Now in place of the might of the entire government which should have been working to solve this problem stands a vague proposal for yet another new law.  Meanwhile, the population of northern India holds its breath.

Jyoti Pande Lavakare is a New Delhi-based journalist and the author of “Breathing Here is Injurious to Your Health: The Human Cost of Air Pollution” to be published by Hachette next month.

Image Credits: @pawanpgupta, Jepoirrier,, Sumitmpsd , Neil Palmer.

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