Point of no return?
The world is kind of ostracising Delhi for its growing pollution menace which has not only left the residents breathless but also forced players to wear masks on the field for the first time in international cricketing history. Kaushikibrata Banerjee analyses the reasons behind this and why the national Capital may soon be no-balled when it comes to hosting India’s favourite sport
There is no winter season as such in Delhi anymore. At least, not the one we knew when we were children. The sparkling winter sun, the beautiful, mysterious fog; the long walks, the wholesome chicken sweet corn soup, the "soulful" roasted peanuts and oranges, the lovely flowers, the innumerable games of cricket and football, the clear starlit sky, tea-coffee shops thronging with people looking for heaven in a tiny warm cup, bonfires and angeethis with small crowds around them summed it up all.
But these days, what remains is a cloud of smog, acrid smoke, burning red eyes, sore throat and breathlessness.
There has been a lot of talk about how the pollution levels in Delhi have shot up and is creating problems for not only the people living in the city but also cricketers and athletes.
In a recent Test match between India and Sri Lanka at Feroze Shah Kotla, the game had to be stopped suddenly as the Lankan players battled with Delhi's toxic air. Sri Lankan pace bowler Suranga Lakmal doubled up and vomited soon after his team took the field for India's second innings. The team physio ran in and escorted him off the field. Eight Sri Lankan players took the field wearing face masks. Lankan players had complained of unease with some vomiting in the dressing room during the second day of the Test match as well. Play at Kotla had begun under hazy skies in the morning with floodlights switched on.
The Air Quality Index (AQI) had dropped to 379 then, from an average of 390 the day before, on a scale of 0–500, according to official figures. Although the level of particulate matter had also dropped compared to the previous day, it was still on the higher side of "very poor" category.
With international players coming in to play Test matches, it was unprecedented to see them wear anti-pollution masks for a game of cricket. And that too in Delhi at a time when winter had set in. It is supposed to be the most important time for sports.
So what is making the scenario worse? Diesel fumes, construction dust, emissions from coal plants and smoke from huge swaths of crops being burned combine to form a smog blanket, thickened by the relatively cool and still air.
VK Soni, a scientist of the environment with the Indian Meteorological Department, Government of India, says pollution levels were really high during that time when the Test match was on. The complications become graver as there is no dispersal and everything gets accumulated in the air which is heavier, thus leading to the pollution.
Dhrubajyoti Ghosh, Visiting Professor, Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology, Shibpur, provides a detailed insight into this recurrent problem. He says: "Diesel and crop burning are the two main contributors. It is impossible for the government to ban diesel cars. Likewise, it is difficult to ban stubble burning in the neighbouring states as well. Both are difficult, however, not impossible."
Ghosh goes on to explain the two aspects which need immediate attention but are not being taken up in any forum.
The first is resuspension of dust. He explains: "Whenever a child walks on the road, the vehicles passing by him leave back a trail of dust. Now, the dust that rises and the kid's nose are at the same level. The child takes all of it inside. Then just imagine how much dust he inhales every day?"
Ghosh goes on to explain the issue of stubble burning as well. "In Punjab, farmers are willing to go back to wheat from rice. But they are not being allowed to do so. Stubble burning has become a major contributor to Delhi's pollution. And it has definitely not happened in one day."
Ghosh is a UN Global 500 Laureate and an Ashoka Fellow. He was also a member of the Board of Trustees, Worldwide Fund for Nature, India.
Wheat and rice are the two major crops of the Granary of India — Punjab. Of the state's total geographical area of 50 lakh hectare, 41 lakh hectare is under cultivation — over 35 lakh hectare for wheat and 30 lakh hectare for rice. Since wheat is a Rabi (winter) crop and rice is a Kharif crop, farmers in Punjab grow both on the same farmland. The time gap between the crops allows them to till their land using the same farm equipment and harvesting machinery. Wheat is indispensable as it is the state's staple diet, but rice is grown primarily to feed the central pool.
Stubble burning is the act of removing paddy crop residue from the field to sow wheat. It's usually required in areas that use the "combine harvesting" method which leaves crop residue behind.
Combines are machines that harvest, thresh i.e. separate the grain and clean the separated grain, all at once. The problem, however, is that the machine doesn't cut close enough to the ground, leaving stubble behind that the farmer has no use for. There is pressure on the farmer to sow the next crop in time for it to achieve full yield. The quickest and cheapest solution, therefore, is to clear the field by burning the stubble.
India relies on its northern states of Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand for wheat.
The clinching difference between northern and southern states is that the latter does not have the urgency to remove the stubble to make the field crop-ready. To sow wheat right after paddy, the field has to be harvested and readied for the next crop.
This November, Delhi earned the unenviable distinction of becoming the most polluted city on earth, as air quality reached epically bad proportions. Pollution was so high on November 8 that several monitoring stations reported an Air Quality Index of 999, way above the upper limit of the worst category, Hazardous. (An extra-sensitive air quality instrument at the US embassy got a reading of 1,010). United Airlines cancelled its flights to Delhi because of poor air quality. Visibility was so bad that cars crashed in pileups on highways and trains had to be delayed and cancelled.
The airborne particles and toxic chemicals that make up the smog have choked the 19 million residents of the metropolis, where merely breathing the air was, at its worst, like smoking 50 cigarettes in a day. Hospitals reported a 20 percent surge in patients with pollution-related illnesses and doctors have declared a public health emergency.
According to reports, the grey smoke and haze were so terrible that the US State Department, which has its own air quality monitoring stations in India, installed air filters for its staff at in their offices and homes. Costa Rica's ambassador to India, Mariela Cruz Alvarez, described in a blog post how she developed a serious respiratory infection and had to decamp to South India. "I'm used to living in paradise and suddenly India has become a threat to my health and the health of my friends and colleagues," she wrote.More than an inconvenience, air pollution is indeed a major medical hazard. The Lancet Commission on pollution and health reported 9 million premature deaths stemming from air pollution in 2015. More than 2.5 million of these deaths were in India, the most in any single country.
India's environmentalists acknowledge that air pollution is a hydra-headed monster with many causes. But they also argue not only that the government has failed to adequately respond, but its policies, like loosening rules on construction sites, have made a toxic air problem even worse. In early November, the smog in New Delhi became so thick that you couldn't see the end of the block. This time of year, as winter sets in is the worst. Chief Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal termed the national Capital as a "gas chamber." The dizzying layers of India's policymakers, the vote banks and the demarcated constituencies, the exhaustible, half-hearted measures, the lack of resolve make it all the more difficult to address this growing menace, leave alone a redressal and reinvention of a solution, leaving cracks wide open through which air pollution keeps seeping in year after year.