Can Delhi sustain its clean air, blue sky days?
The world — based on a resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) last December — will observe the International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies for the first time on Monday.
The UNGA note, dated January 22, on the observance of September 7 as a day for clean air, states that air pollution is the single-greatest environmental risk to human health.
Delhi for the first time in years has recorded several blue-sky “good” air days since March 25, when nation-wide lockdown restrictions were enforced in a bid to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak.
Later, this been followed by a favourable monsoon with some intense spells of rain and strong wind.
But Delhi’s acid test begins in September when meteorological conditions change, emissions rise with the re-opening up of various sectors after lockdown restrictions, while the crop stubble burning begins in neighbouring states such as Uttar Pradesh (UP), Haryana and Punjab in October.
There were only two “good” air days in 2017 followed by two days last year.
This year, there have been five good air days (March 28) (during the first week of the Covid-19 induced lockdown) with an air quality index (AQI) reading of 45; on August 13 after heavy rain, the AQI was recorded 50; August 20, again when Delhi received very heavy rainfall, the AQI was 50; August 24, the AQI was 45 and the lowest air quality index (AQI) in five years was recorded this August on August 31 with AQI of only 41.
“By end-September the meteorological conditions change. Wind direction changes from south-westerly and north-easterly to predominantly north-westerly. Wind speed also reduces. There may have been reduction in emission load this year because normal vehicular traffic has not yet resumed,” said Vijay Soni, a scientist at air pollution division of India Meteorological Department (IMD).
This year ensuring farmers don’t set crop stubble on fire in Punjab, Haryana, UP, an annual activity to dispose crop stubble from kharif season, may be very difficult. This is because small farmers are already affected by Covid-19-led economic slowdown and may not have the means to hire machines and tractors for straw management. The Centre had launched a Rs- 1,150 crore scheme in 2018 to subsidise farm straw-management machinery in the north-western states, where rampant paddy-straw burning contributes to air pollution in Delhi every year.
“We have filled forms to claim a 50% subsidy on straw management machinery being offered by the government. The subsidy hasn’t come through yet. But small farmers will burn crop stubble. They cannot afford machinery and tractors in the midst of a pandemic. The machine has to be mounted on a tractor and there are diesel costs also,” said Harinder Singh Lakhowal, general secretary, Bharatiya Kisan Union, Punjab.
The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) had claimed last year that there was a 50% reduction in the agricultural area, where crop residue burning takes place. But an analysis by Hiren Jethva, a research scientist with Universities Space Research Association at (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre, suggested that there was hardly any reduction.
“We have disbursed the money this year also to states to ensure farmers get subsidised straw management machinery. By October 15, those machines should be in place. We are expecting a reduction in stubble burning cases. Over 50% reduction in area with crop stubble burning has been recorded,” said Trilochan Mohapatra, director-general, ICAR.
The Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) is also considering a request by the Union power ministry to defer the deadline for thermal power plants to meet air pollution norms by 2022, another two years. Thermal power plants are one of the largest sources of sulphur dioxide (SO2) and particulate matter (PM) pollution in India. The MoEFCC had notified superior emission standards for thermal power plants in December 2015 for implementation by the end of 2017. The deadline was delayed to 2022 because of resistance from the thermal power industry.
“Delhi has taken several steps such as closing of all thermal power plants; stopping truck entry; phasing out more than 10-year-old diesel vehicles among others. But this is the right time to take stock of the gaps. Delhi needs to scale up its public transportation and vehicle electrification programme massively. It needs to streamline its waste sector through better segregation and recycling in a bid to ensure that waste is not burnt. It has to move all industries to clean fuel,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a not-for-profit public interest research and advocacy organisation based in the national capital.