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Pollution in Delhi: Crop burning to blame?

Smoke coming out of factories in the horizon, air pollution is spreading like clouds and covering the setting sun. Shot at rural village of West Bengal, India. Pollution is a global issue worldwide. Image credit: Rudra Narayan Mitra / 123rf
Industrial pollution pictured in a village in West Bengal. Image credit: Rudra Narayan Mitra / 123rf

Air pollution in Delhi is on the upswing, reports indicate – and analysts are pointing their fingers at farm fires.

Stubble burning by farmers in neighbouring states has been highlighted as a probable cause of the uptick in pollution levels in the national capital. Saturday saw 3,216 stubble burning fires observed over Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

Sunday saw a reading of 364 for the national capital on the Air Quality Index (AQI). Reports attributed forty percent of the air pollution in Delhi to farmers perpetrating the practice of stubble burning. Monday did see a decline in pollution levels – attributable according to a Hindustan Times report to “high wind speed aiding dispersion of pollutants, even as farm fires continued to rage in neighbouring states.” 

Nonetheless, average AQI readings over the previous 24 hours marked the levels of pollution in Delhi to still be in the “poor” category, with a reading on the Index of 293. Sunday witnessed an AQI reading of 364, which the AQI identifies as “very poor.”

Stubble burning in neighbour states and its impact on pollution in Delhi is far from a new issue. 

As reported in November last year by Health Issues India

“The practice of burning crop residue leads to between seven and eight million metric tonnes of stubble being incinerated by farmers yearly. This heralds pollution season in north India – one which has been of such intensity this year that it resulted in a public health emergency being declared in Delhi by the Environment (Pollution Control and Pollution) Authority (EPCA) and wound up being in the crosshairs of the Supreme Court. 

“As Air Quality Index…readings for the national capital stood at their worst in almost three years, justices fumed. “Delhi is choking every year and we are not able to do anything,” the bench condemned. “People are dying and it can’t happen in a civilised country.””

At that time, we noted how “in 2017, air pollution was responsible for 1.2 million deaths in India.” In addition, we highlighted the fact that pollution “slashes life expectancy, can lead to or exacerbate numerous health issues, and is profoundly damaging to child health. Far from being limited to the NCR [National Capital Region], pollution is a pan-Indian issue. Even as AQI readings have improved in the national capital, downgraded from “severe” to “poor” on the scale, the pollution crisis continues to take a toll.” 

Industrial pollution is spreading like clouds and covering the setting sun. West Bengal, India. Pollution is now a global issue and must be checked. Image credit: Rudra Narayan Mitra / 123rf
Image credit: Rudra Narayan Mitra / 123rf

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, there was some hope for optimism in terms of air pollution. Admittedly, as my colleague Nicholas Parry wrote for this publication in April, “it [seemed] morbid to identify a silver lining of the…COVID-19 crisis.” Nonetheless, at that time, “residents of New Delhi [were] experiencing the longest period of clean air on record, according to Government data. The limitations on work and travel put in place by the quarantine…significantly limited the use of cars and motor vehicles, as well as limited the impact of industry and factories across India. The result [was]…clear skies, a rare occurrence in India’s polluted cities.”

Subsequently, Parry wrote how “India’s annual death toll would fall by approximately 650,000 if the fall in air pollution levels driven by the country’s lockdown are maintained, according to a new study. This is according to researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Delhi and two Chinese universities – Fudan University and Shenzhen Polytechnic.” 

Yet, this effect was far from long-lasting as the crisis in Delhi establishes with grim clarity. Arguably even more grimly, we received recently yet another insight into how damaging the health crisis in India’s skies are to public health among society’s most vulnerable. As Parry wrote last week

“A comprehensive report on India’s air quality claims that India’s catastrophic air pollution issues were responsible for the deaths of more than 116,000 infants within the first month of life in 2019…long-term exposure to both outdoor and household air pollution was said to have contributed to over 1.67 million annual deaths from stroke, heart attack, diabetes, lung cancer, chronic lung diseases and neonatal diseases in India in 2019.”

Perhaps the primary takeaway from research into India’s air pollution crisis is that “air pollution is now marked as the most common risk factor for deaths from all health risks. This runs true of both noncommunicable conditions, as well as infectious disease due to the immune system implications of the chronic inflammation caused by air pollution.”

For COVID-19, recent research has flagged that exposure to air pollution heightens the risk of mortality due to the disease by fifteen percent. “In Europe the proportion was about nineteen percent, in North America it was seventeen percent, and in East Asia about 27 percent,” informed the European Society of Cardiology in a statement. The release added that “researchers write that these proportions are an estimate of “the fraction of COVID-19 deaths that could be avoided if the population were exposed to lower counterfactual air pollution levels without fossil fuel-related and other anthropogenic [caused by humans] emissions.”

For India, this is alarming news given the scope of its pollution woes. The crisis of pollution in Delhi – a city repeatedly marked as among the worst-affected by air pollution in the world – underscores this.

For the national capital’s part, efforts are underway to preserve and maintain air quality. In October, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal took a stand against air pollution in Delhi. He announced the convention of a “war room” to tackle the problem of air pollution. His administration’s response included an app for a “Green Delhi” through which, he said, “people can bring pollution causing activities, such as garbage burning or industrial pollution, to our notice. There will be a deadline to address complaints. I will get a daily report about resolved and pending grievances.”

Tackling air pollution in Delhi and elsewhere – and its causes, such as stubble burning – are critical. Environmental preservation is among the many needs of this hour. Tackling the forces which degrade it is a core component of this strategy.

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