Less economic activity and vehicular traffic due to the pandemic don’t seem to have made cities in northern India more breathable this winter
It’s winter again, the time when the quality of air in the northern belt, from Punjab to West Bengal, turns alarming. This winter, the hope was that cities in this belt would be more breathable after months of curtailed economic activity and vehicular traffic amid the coronavirus pandemic. But data shows there is hardly any respite. And with activity picking up and winter setting in, air quality could get even worse.
Nowhere does this issue get as amplified as in Delhi. Wind patterns around this time result in the national capital attracting smoke from the fires lit by farmers in neighbouring states to dispose of their crop residue and plant the next lot. Despite all the political noise and policy action, so far, 2020 is worse than the two previous years on the fire count. Since farmers started sowing early this monsoon season, they are also disposing earlier than usual.
Usually, stubble burning starts around 15 September. One measure of data on such fires is the visible infrared imaging radiometer suite (VIIRS) from the US space agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). VIIRS captures all kinds of fires, including farm fires. Its spatial resolution can detect smaller fires, thus providing a more reliable estimate of fire perimeters. Between 15 September and 22 October this year, the number of fires in four states adjoining Delhi—Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan—was the third-highest in the last six years.
The number of fires in these four states has increased by 94% this year compared to the same period of 2019.
Administrators were banking on a carrot-and-stick approach: ban stubble burning, and subsidize rented farm machinery to manage crop residue. It hasn’t worked: it’s a hard problem to solve. Firstly, the scale is too large. Last year, Punjab produced 20 million tonnes of paddy and burnt 9.8 million tonnes of residue. Haryana produced 7 million tonnes and burnt 1.2 million tonnes. Secondly, farmers typically try to reduce the time between two crops. And, fires clear land fast.
To add to this, the coronavirus pandemic has created a shortage of labour this year. Burning stubble needs less labour than alternate methods. A 30-day image capture from VIIRS, covering the month to 22 October, shows the extent of the increase in farm fires this year.
Biomass burning accounts for 26% of Delhi’s pollution, found a 2016 study by Indian Institute of Technology Delhi on the sources of PM2.5. The other major sources are vehicular pollution, coal and fly ash, solid waste burning, and soil and road dust. These combine with the environment to produce secondary particles, which go on to affect other parts of India.
In the week to October 24, the Air Quality Index (AQI) was in the “poor" zone in 10 of 18 select Indian cities. In five of these cities, including Delhi, the AQI was worse than the corresponding period of 2019. Worryingly, air pollution levels are higher than year-ago levels even in cities lower down in India.
Many expected this year to be different on two counts. First, the pandemic rendered a severe blow to the economy, with India’s GDP estimated to shrink about 10% this financial year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Air quality had improved earlier this year as economic activity had slowed during the lockdown. This averted around 4,600 deaths in Delhi alone by August, showed an analysis by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air and The Economist.
Second, the hope was that governments would take stricter action to tackle pollution as the combination of air pollution and coronavirus could be even more fatal. According to the State of Global Air 2020, published by Health Effects Institute, India registered 980,000 deaths attributable to PM2.5 in 2019. A study by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health earlier this year linked higher covid deaths in the US to air pollution. Health practitioners have cautioned this could be true for India too.
Stubble burning is worsening air pollution, but it’s not the only cause of worry. Economic activity is coming back. The IHS Markit India Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index, an indicator of manufacturing activity, has expanded for two months in a row. In September, it registered its highest value since January 2012.
Even footfalls at transit stations are on the rise. They are at the highest levels since the lockdown, indicating greater vehicular movement, shows Google mobility data.
While lower economic activity can result in cleaner air, it’s neither sustainable nor desirable—it harms the poor and the vulnerable the most. Sustained efforts to bring down air pollution remain the need of the day.
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