It is that time of the year when farmers in the north Indian plains burn their crop residue to prepare for the next season of farming. It is also that time of the year when people living in crowded, cramped and crawling cities dotting the northern landscape gasp for breath. The burning of crops, fuel and the fog brought in by the nip in the air make a deadly toxic cocktail of smog that becomes a life-disrupting phenomenon. The situation in 2017 was so bad that the sun had generally remained hidden behind the poisonous haze causing a major health alarm and forced the government to take emergency measures. At one time, the Delhi government even considered artificial rain to overcome breathlessness. As winter sets in this year, it seems little has changed on the ground to ensure that people breathe easy this year.
Reports of massive crop burning in Haryana and Punjab have started trickling in and it is only a matter of time when favourable winds push the air quality to the danger zone. The signs are ominous as weather monitors indicate that Delhi air is already in very poor category. It is baffling that despite a clear knowledge of the factors that contribute to the problem, the state government and the Centre have not been able to find a solution. Farmers have been fined and even offered subsidies to switch to alternative environment-friendly methods to prepare their fields for the next crop but nothing seems to have worked. Even the scientific establishment of the government has not been able to come up with cost-effective alternatives to help farmers who are reluctant to spend from their pocket. They look up to support from the government.
The Nasa earth observatory has captured the extent of burning fields in Haryana and Punjab. At the start of October, air quality was reported to be in moderate category but it worsened within 10 days. Ground reports from Haryana and Punjab show the state governments have been oblivious of the impending crisis as it has been business as usual with no one visiting farmers to dissuade them from burning fields. There have been claims that sale of stubble management equipment like happy seeders have gone up indicating that farm fires will be less this year, but there is no evidence of it so far. A unit of happy seeder costs between Rs 1.5 lakh and Rs 1.75 lakh. However, the government gives 50 per cent subsidy on it and farmers complain that the price is still high. Farmers have also questioned the effectiveness of these equipment. In some cases farmers complained delay in getting the subsidy. The government has formulated a National Clean Air Programme as a national campaign to address air pollution. But experts claim there is lack of coordination among state governments and the stakeholders. The absence of coordination is evident in the northern states, which are battling the crisis without a joint strategy.
The issue is complicated by the fact that there are three different political parties in power in Delhi, Punjab and Haryana. This has resulted in difficult situations. As had been the case last year, Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh has been difficult in his approach to the issue, his disdain for Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal – shown in his refusal to meet him – extending to Delhi’s citizens who will suffer breathing difficulties because of crop burning by farmers. Of course, crop burning is not the only factor contributing to poor air quality in Delhi. But that could be the cause for inaction for everything else – vehicle owners oppose the odd-and-even scheme saying vehicular pollution is only one reason for pollution in the capital and those selling firecrackers on Diwali say the festival lasts but one night. But the city’s residents suffer and there is no ambiguity about the fact that air pollution is a major health hazard in the national capital. It is time for all concerned to put their heads together to find a solution. The time for a soft approach is over.