Dhaka, Bangladesh
What’s to do with smog?

What’s to do with smog?

The smog in Delhi and majority of North Indian cities has reached a level where doctors have suggested evacuation, writes Devashish Dhar

What Faiz Ahmad Faiz said on the eve of independence “Ye daagh daagh ujala, ye shab-gazeeda seher// Wo intezaar tha jiska ye wo seher tau nahi” may as well be said about the North Indian cities in winters. Over the past few days, PM2.5 levels in Delhi breached 700-800 micrograms per cubic metre – a level which is hazardous by both WHO and Indian government standards. The Air Quality Index (AQI) in these cities was highest in the world, even clocking maximum level that can be recorded on the scale, i.e. 999. In fact, the smog in Delhi and majority of North Indian cities has reached a level where doctors have suggested “evacuation”, CMs have ordered shutting of schools, construction has been halted, power plants have been momentarily shut, diesel-generators are banned, cloud seeding is seriously considered, among other such coping but knee-jerk reactions.  The primary reason behind this “Great North Indian Smog” is burning of straw from rice paddy crops by farmers before they begin wheat plantation in the states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. This year the situation worsened on the back of unfavourable weather conditions which have trapped the smog over Delhi and the rest of North India. Measures such as odd-even policy on cars, ban on burning of leaves and garbage and others mentioned above, have had only limited positive impact. As the political bickering begins over this issue, it is time for us to find long-term, low-cost and scalable solutions.  It is tempting to draw parallels between Beijing’s and New Delhi’s air pollution issue. Both are capitals of the world’s biggest countries that jointly resisted the west’s stringent CO2 emission cuts, exemplify shift of economic vibrancy to Asia and are among the world’s largest cities. However, there are fundamental differences between pollution in these two cities. Beijing’s pollution is “fueled” by vehicular and factory pollution whereas India’s pollution is mainly driven by stubble burning. Other small factors contributing to pollution in India include emissions from vehicles, industry and construction. Therefore, the solutions that worked in China to an extent cannot be replicated on the ground in India. Instead, India should learn from Singapore’s handling of its annual haze concern. The Singapore haze problem is an outcome of palm oil plantation burning in Indonesia, mainly in the Sumatra region. Another interesting similarity is how little Singapore can do on its own to prevent this annual curse. Singapore and Indonesia are both part of the ASEAN – Association of South East Nations – a regional association long hailed as the successful model for (sub)-regional cooperation based on minimum common values. Given the conflicts in South-East Asia when ASEAN was conceptualized, one common value jointly agreed upon was “non-interference” in the domestic affairs of the other ASEAN countries. This value has long been attributed to be the success of ASEAN; but the same ties Singapore’s hands in bringing Indonesia to table for taking concrete actions. Likewise, in India, the States are answerable to their local constituencies and have limited say in influencing/limiting farmer burning straw of rice fields in other states. In this regard, more solutions should be derived from Singapore than from China’s example. First, Singapore tried to identify, shame and even penalize private firms burning forests in Indonesia. In the same vein, the Indian government in collaboration with states can identify the key sub-regions within states that are primarily responsible for such mass-scale burning. The local administration and region should be named and shamed to highlight their apathy towards their fellow countrymen. This identification can be done by hot spot mapping and tracking massive land-clearing activities. Second, the states and center need to come together to discuss this issue in detail and create binding solutions. NITI Aayog – in all its effort to foster cooperative federalism – is uniquely placed to convene all the concerned stakeholders and initiate evidence-backed discussion. One of the solutions of such a collaboration effort could be to use a challenge method to solicit scalable, cost-effective and innovative solutions to clear farms. The source of such optimism is the successful use of technology to mitigate smog issue in other parts of the world – Hong Kong, Philippines, Mexico and also in China. Third, the states and center can mandate installing screens at major public places and ask television and newspapers to display/publish the air quality index. Singapore being a city state has managed to do the same by managing the dedicated website: www.haze.gov.sg/. This is expected to yield three benefits. First, every state has a set of go-to measures in response to increase in pollution levels. Such information will prevent any catastrophic delay in their response. Second, such a display of information will continue to keep the public and civil society informed and any adverse movement in the index will lead to public pressure on the administration and legislators to get their acts together. Third, in states mainly responsible for crop burning, Delhi and other states should publish information linking how the farm activity in such states is impacting air pollution in their home states. They should also publish the AQI of cities in other developing countries which are still sub-50/100 level. This is bound to increase the empathy, accountability and fellowship in farmer community to limit their farm burning efforts. Fourth, unlike in Singapore, in India the states and central governments can explore the option of buying the crop residue from the farmers and using it as a fuel for Waste-to-Energy (incinerators) plants. These plants have massive fuel requirements and feeding such residue could create a possible win-win situation for all.

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