Double whammy: Delhi now fighting its worst air pollution amid high COVID-19 caseload

Experts say air pollution may increase the transmissibility of the coronavirus, making people more vulnerable to the disease and aggravating the Covid-19 situation.

Published: 19th October 2020 08:08 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th October 2020 08:26 AM   |  A+A-

Delhi Pollution

Representational Image. (File Photo | PTI)

Express News Service

It is that time of the year when the national capital chokes on toxic air. In the first two weeks of October, Delhi’s air quality index was worse than in the same period in 2018 and 2019, according to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

And with its daily Covid-19 case count beginning to rise again — regaining the number one position among cities with the maximum caseload in India — the city’s worst fear, according to experts, looks far from over.

On Sunday morning, the national capital’s air quality was recorded in the ‘poor’ category and stubble burning contributing to Delhi’s PM2.5 pollution is likely to ‘increase significantly’, the CPCB said.

It was 19% on Saturday, 18% on Friday, around 1% on Wednesday and around 3% on Tuesday, Monday and Sunday.

Experts say air pollution may increase the transmissibility of the coronavirus, making people more vulnerable to the disease and aggravating the Covid-19 situation.

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They also warn that those who have had the infection in the past may also have to face new challenges. According to doctors, respiratory illnesses like viral influenza increase with a spike in pollution level as poor air quality leads to inflammation in the lungs, making it more vulnerable for the virus to penetrate.

Why does Delhi grapple with pollution?

Several factors lead to a drop in air quality — transport, biomass and waste burning, dust, and industries and power plants. Of these, stubble burning in neighbouring states, including Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, is considered to be the major reason for hazy grey skies during winters in Delhi — a landlocked megacity which has limited avenues for flushing the polluted air out.

During smog, particulate matters remain suspended in the air near the earth’s surface for a longer period making it conducive for the transmission of the coronavirus.

“Meteorological factors are the biggest cause of the increase in pollution in winter. If meteorological factors like wind speed and temperature come under control then pollution would automatically reduce. Secondly, PM2.5 are particles in the air with a diameter of fewer than 2.5 micrometres and they include pollutants such as sulfate, nitrate and black carbon. It poses the greatest risk to human health as the fine particles can easily be inhaled into the respiratory tract. The third is the farm fires (stubble burning). With time, the AQI level might go up and worsen further,” says Sumit Sharma, director of the earth science and climate change division at the TERI.

‘Farmers are forced to burn crop residues’
Despite a spike in the number of cases of stubble burning in Punjab, (till now 5,552 reported), the quality of air in major cities of the state remained in the ‘moderate’ category.

Balbir Singh Rajewal, president of Bharatiya Kisan Union (Rajewal Group), said farmers are not responsible for the stubble burning.

The government has not fulfilled its promise to provide money to the states to enable them to support the farmers in procuring straw chopping machines as per the directions of National Green Tribunal (NGT). They have not been given compensation on orders of the Supreme Court.

“The farmer is forced to burn the stubble as he does not have money to buy machines such as happy seeder, paddy straw chopper/ shredder/mulcher, hydraulic reversible mould board (RMB) plough and zero-till drill to tackle the stubble burning. Last year, the Supreme Court had asked the government to give Rs 2,500 per acre to farmers to stop stubble burning, but the government expressed its inability to pay the amount,’’ says Satnam Singh Pannu, president of the BKU (Pannu Group).

While the PUSA decomposer — a set of four tablets made of fungi strains that help the paddy straw to decompose at a much faster rate than usual — is already being applied in Delhi, the Punjab government has already clarified that until it qualifies at the Punjab Agriculture University in Ludhiana, it won’t be allowed to be used in the state.

States-Centre blame game
Notably, the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), in a research paper based on the data for 2018 and 2019, has found that Delhi’s pollution is localised and not attributable to the farm fires in Punjab or the NCR. It pointed out that the AQI for Punjab is much better than in Delhi. On this, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh pointed out that this is something the state has been maintaining for the past several years.

“It was obvious that (Delhi CM) Arvind Kejriwal, who had been blaming Punjab’s farm fires for the poor AQI levels in the national capital for the past several years, was taking refuge in brazen falsehoods to divert public attention from the AAP government’s total failure to control the environmental situation in Delhi. Even today, the skies in Punjab are clear and the AQI levels much better than those in Delhi,” says Singh.

Kejriwal, however, blamed the Centre, and the Haryana and Punjab governments for the severe air pollution, alleging that they have failed to do anything despite the all-out efforts by the Aam Aadmi Party government.

“The pollution was in control in Delhi throughout the year, but this time (winters) every year, Delhi has to face severe pollution due to the Centre, BJP-led Haryana and Congress- led Punjab governments. Despite our all-out efforts, they are not ready to do anything. Farmers of these two states are also fed up with their governments,” Kejriwal had tweeted on Monday. Punjab and Haryana have recorded more incidents of stubble burning this season, so far, compared to last year and it is largely due to early harvesting of paddy and unavailability of farm labour due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to officials.

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Punjab’s measures to control crop burning

This year, the Punjab government already made it mandatory under the Air (Prevention & Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 for the combine harvester to have a Super straw management system (SMS) attached to it. Some combine harvester owners, out of total 13,000 in the state, have tried not to install the super SMS to save time and cost of operation.

Paddy is grown in 67 lakh acres in Punjab.

The SMS attached with the combine chops the paddy straw into minute pieces, which makes it easier for other machines to operate in the fields.

The SMS alone holds the potential to do away with stubble burning trends as other machines can directly sow wheat seedlings while ploughing the existing residue in the field.

“This system helps the direct wheat sowing with machines such as happy seeders, super seeders and zero-till seed drills and thus, save time and money of the farmers,” says former agriculture secretary KS Pannu.

This year, the state government is providing subsidies ranging from 50% to 80% for the purchase of 23,500 crop residue management machines, the use of which will help the farmers sow wheat without resorting to straw burning. Besides, the Punjab government is giving 50% subsidy to the combine harvester owners for setting up the system.

Steps taken by Delhi governmnet

The Delhi government, this year, has started a series of events to resist further deterioration of air quality.

A ‘green war room’ at the Delhi Secretariat has been set up to monitor pollution levels in the city. A 10-member team has been set up to monitor the level of primary pollutants, measures taken to curb pollution and status of complaints received through Green Delhi mobile application.

‘Red light on, Gaadi off ’: A campaign that will encourage people to switch off the engines of their vehicles while they are waiting at traffic signals.

Experts say on an average, a vehicle stops at a signal for 15-20 minutes in a day, consuming 200 ml of fuel. This generates pollution. If 10 lakh vehicles switch off their engines at signals, 1.5 tons of PM10 and 0.4 tons of PM2.5 will be prevented every year,” said the Delhi chief minister.

Tree Transplantation Policy, which requires a minimum of 80% of the trees affected by construction or development projects, to be transplanted. The implementation of the policy will be in addition to the policy of the compulsory afforestation of 10 saplings.

A dedicated Tree Transplantation Cell and local committees will be formed which will include government officials, citizens, RWAs to monitor the transplanted trees and to monitor the transplantation task.

The Delhi government has identified 13 major hotspots where, the CM said, an “areaspecific” action plan will be executed.

The areas are Okhla Phase-II, Dwarka, Ashok Vihar, Bawana, Narela, Mundka, Punjabi Bagh, Wazirpur, Rohini, Vivek Vihar, Anand Vihar, RK Puram and Jahangirpuri — all classified as hotspots by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) and the CPCB last year based on high particulate matter concentration.

Smog Tower: The Delhi Cabinet approved a proposal to install a smog tower in Connaught Place to deal with air pollution. The government has stationed Rs 20 crore, and the tower will come up in 10 months, Kejriwal said, claiming that it will be the first of its kind in the world.

Pusa bio-decomposer: Indian Agricultural Research Institute, PUSA, have found a low-cost, simple and effective way to deal with the problem of stubble burning. The technique provides an option for farmers to dispose of the crop remains without burning the stubble. The solution increases soil fertility and reduces the use of fertilisers.

Shutting of thermal plants: The AAP government wrote a letter to the Supreme Court-mandated EPCA and the CPCB requesting these agencies to shut down all the 11 thermal power plants of the NCR.

How do actions work?

Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive directorresearch and advocacy at Centre for Science, explains that Delhi has got two sets of programmes — emergency and graded comprehensive action plan.

“There is one set of emergency action to be followed throughout the winter. That these actions need to enforce with absolute zero tolerance.

The smog tower is a court mandate issue, but we have no evidence with us to suggest that these towers have any impact on pollution.

Emergency action is taken to see there is no further addition to the existing pollution. As time goes, one needs to see if more actions are needed,” she says.

She adds that more systematic reforms are needed like checking on industrial pollution throughout the year and improving public transport and improving waste management for which they need systematic changes.

“With these, winter pollution can be controlled for a longer period. Public transport can’t be intensified this year because of social distancing norms. The annual pollution level has started to come down, but the season- wise it is still up. But there is a lot that needs to be done,” Chowdhury says.

How effective are these measures?

Chandra Bhushan, CEO of iForest, says the recent initiatives of the Delhi government
— such as switching off vehicles at traffic signals or smog towers — are not enough to fight
the toxic air.

“There are three stages of emissionof pollutant gas from a vehicle and it  becomes the highest when a car’s engines are turned on. So, a vehicle needs to be stopped for at least three minutes. In India, biomass coal and solid burning comprise 85% and the rest is liquid or gas. But the authorities have taken 85% action on liquid or gas and the rest on biomass burning,” he says.

Bhushan adds that instead of spending money on smog towers, the government could provide LPG to the households who use biomass or electric heaters to those who burn waste to warm themselves.

Ban on stubble burning

In 2013, the Punjab government banned the burning of crop residue in the fields under the Air (Prevention and Control of Air Pollution) Act, 1981.

SC forms committee

Last week, the Supreme Court formed a one-member committee, headed by Justice Madan B Lokur, which will submit a report on stubble burning in Punjab, Haryana and UP after Dussehra.

NGT’s prohibition

In 2015, the National Green Tribunal prohibited the burning of paddy straw while directing the government to help farmers manage the paddy straw using specialised equipment like Happy Seeder
that chops paddy straw, sows wheat seeds and layers the straw as a mulch.

Other machines like Rotavator, that bundle the straw into bales to be transported, were also to be procured and used.

With farmers starting to burn stubble, Delhi again faces alarming levels of air pollution. This could make the city’s Covid-19 problems even worse. While AAP blames Punjab for the air quality, experts say govt’s moves not enough to fight the smog, report Somrita Ghosh and Harpreet Bajwa

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