Time was when the months of October and November were a part of the year people in India used to anticipate eagerly. This was for two reasons. First, the festival season would be upon them. Second, the sizzling heat of the summer months would abate and the bite of winter would still be some time away, making it the most pleasant part of the year. But now, especially in Delhi and parts of north India, the other reason for gladness has been overshadowed by an annual spike in pollution.
This menace brings with it respiratory diseases. Over and above the firework menace and vehicular emissions in the National Capital Region, the smog is caused mainly by burning paddy stubble in Punjab and Haryana.
Though the act is illegal, paddy stubble has been set on fire around this time for decades, but what is new is the large quantum that is being burnt. After the harvesting is done, paddy straw and stubble are left on the fields. Ploughing the stubble back into the soil is a safe option but costly.
Hence burning is the cost-effective alternative. A way to prevent this kind of pollution is by weaning Punjab farmers away from paddy cultivation by decreasing minimum support prices and by hiking power rates. But given the clout of farmers in the state, it is unlikely to happen.
Firecrackers have been an increasing source of pollution in Indian cities at this time of the year, and citizens’ initiatives have proved largely fruitless in terms of mitigating the problem. Data over the past five years shows that pollution on the eve of Diwali has gone up. The problem has been exacerbated by the bursting of Chinese crackers, which often do not adhere to pollution norms. The Centre has told the Supreme Court that bursting crackers is not the only source of pollution in Delhi; this is no doubt true.
There is the problem of vehicular pollution: The number of registered vehicles in the National Capital Region is about eight million. The National Green Tribunal has imposed a green tax on diesel vehicles entering Delhi; it remains to be seen how a good move like this is put into practice and policed. Strong automobile sales in October, though good for the economy, will not improve the state of the environment because of weak emission monitoring. The battle against pollution is a difficult, multi-dimensional one, but it is a problem that can be conquered with the requisite will.