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View from India: Smog disrupts Delhi-NCR

As pollution levels deteriorate, schools and colleges in Delhi, India’s capital city, remain shut indefinitely. Barring transport and defence-related activities, all construction activities have been stalled until 21 November.

A thick layer of smog has enveloped the city, worsening the air quality. As per media reports, the levels of particulate matter PM2.5 – tiny enough to clog lungs – in Delhi are far higher than the World Health Organization's safety guidelines. The System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research has indicated that the Air Quality Index of Delhi continues to remain in the 'severe' category. The Delhi Environment Minister Gopal Rai has announced that government officials can work from home until 21 November.

To think of it, Delhi has two large-scale outdoor smog towers to induct air and purify it. The air-purification system can help to an extent but doesn’t seem to mitigate the pollution levels. A ground-up concerted effort is required to address rising pollution levels like dust storms, vehicular emissions, waste burning and farm fires; a month-long campaign began on 11 November to bring things under control. Government departments such as Delhi Pollution Control Committee, municipal corporations, revenue department, Delhi Development Authority, Development Department, Delhi State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation, Irrigation & Flood Control, and the Department and Cantonment Board have formed teams to execute the plan and many teams have been assigned for night-time patrolling.

Civic bodies are deploying over 400 tankers to sprinkle water in an effort to control dust pollution in the city. Under the Graded Response Action Plan, the usage of diesel generators, coal furnaces, gen-sets and open fires are being banned. The Delhi government has begun a drive against the open burning of waste and biomass. Delhi has around 4,000 acres of cultivable land which is to be covered with a bio-decomposer solution to avoid the burning of crop stubble. There’s an increased thrust on public transport as 1,000 private Compressed Natural Gas buses are being hired.

Kailash Gehlot, the transport Minister of Delhi, tweeted: “With the aim to further control vehicular pollution and dust, entry of trucks into Delhi, except those carrying essential commodities and tankers carrying petroleum products is prohibited with immediate effect, till 21 Nov, 21 ( or till further orders).” 

The Delhi government has launched an initiative to lower vehicular emissions titled ‘Red Light On, Gaadi [vehicle] Off’. Arvind Kejriwal, the Chief Minister of Delhi, had appealed to people to "contribute" in the fight against pollution and make the campaign successful. "Please do contribute in this fight against pollution. Whenever you stop at the red light, please turn off your car's engine. This will save fuel and also help reduce pollution. We all Delhiites will together reduce pollution in Delhi," Kejriwal had tweeted.

The situation is grim and several factors have been responsible for the abysmal air quality. Annually, farms in the outskirts of Delhi-NCR (National Capital Region) and surrounding states burn the remnants of the rice paddy straw and leave behind crop stubble. This happens between October and December as the ground is being prepared for wheat plantation. It doesn’t stop at that: construction activities within the Delhi-NCR region have been in full swing with several roads, underpasses and bridges underway (the authorities have now put a ban on it). Though the fire crackers during Diwali were not on par with pre-Covid times, the act of bursting crackers (though minimal) too adds to the risk of heart and lung diseases. Many factories in the Delhi-NCR belt may still rely on traditional diesel gen-sets rather than alternate fuel options; the industrial and vehicular emissions add to this existing heady mix.

The winter months get foggy and misty and, to worsen things, the pollutants in the lower atmosphere are trapped due to low wind-speed. With this, there’s a heavy dose of smog, making the Delhi-NCR belt unbearable and throwing life out of gear. People choke under its toxicity and suffer from pollution-related infections and airborne diseases. Flights and train cancellations seem to be a customary feature year after year.

Crop waste management itself can be a channel for revenue. Could there be solutions to extract energy out of crop waste? Already a move to promote biofuel was made last year; the state-run Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) Limited and National Thermal Power Corporation Limited (NTPC) and South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) signed a memorandum of understanding to develop waste-to-energy facilities at SDMC’s landfill site in Okhla, Delhi. Recently, IOC-NTPC have collaborated to generate and store renewable and cleaner energy including gas-based power. The announcement comes in the wake of IOC’s aim to build the country’s first green hydrogen plant at its Mathura refinery.

From the government standpoint, a fund has been initiated for farmers to mechanise the harvesting process. Yet the option seems prohibitive as the majority of farmers can’t afford the machine. Maybe private companies and startups can be incentivised to tailor solutions for crop waste management and pollution. By doing so, the carbon footprint in the National Capital Region may be under check throughout the year. 

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