Why Open Air Fires Are The Main Cause of Air Pollution In India

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Public fires from paddy fields and open-air stoves are some of the worst contributors to India's increasingly toxic air.

Every year, farmers in the adjacent states of Punjab and Haryana burn more than 30 million tons of straw. With thousands of hectares ablaze, you can see the smoke fields from space. But for residents of Delhi, they can’t see anything through the smoke.

This smoke spreads across Northern India and parts of Pakistan; by the time it reaches the nation’s capital it combines with construction dust, the emission of over 10 million vehicles and industrial emissions.

Delhi is now the most polluted city on earth, with nearly three times the pollution of the highest criteria under the Air Quality Index (AQI). This year’s annual smokescreen has been declared a public medical emergency, with trains stopped, schools shut and countless Delhiites fearing for their lives behind air masks. Breathing in the Delhi air is akin to smoking 50 cigarettes. And under current weather patterns, this situation will not reduce until the weekend.

The situation in Delhi is almost a mockery of the safe limits prescribed for breathing in the particulate or toxic matter. To know these limits, most outlets turn to the U.S. Embassy’s own online monitor, displaying a real-time AQI. Colour-coded by region, you’d be hard-pressed to find any measure that is not ‘hazardous’ in Delhi now.

AQI levels under 200 make going outdoors unsafe for sensitive individuals. A level above 350 is a sign that nobody should go out; serious health effects are expected for the entire population. Delhi, home to 30 million people, has been termed by its own chief minister as a ‘gas chamber’.

But even when the air isn’t filled with smoke, Indian cities are far from habitable. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) found that as of 2015, most Indian cities exceeded PM10 safety limits. In 2011, it was estimated that there were 570 million mortalities related to exposure to Particulate Matter 2.5. PM 2.5 is the smallest and most dangerous of air pollutants; it wedges deep inside your lungs.)

It’s cost an average of 3.4 years of life in India; with the figure in Delhi being nearly double that at 6.3. In 2013, this figure was 660,000 people according to the Global Burden of Diseases (GBD).

As early as 2004, the World Health Organisation (WHO) evaluated that respiratory diseases and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) were the two largest killers in India. By any measure, India’s urban denizens have been doing irreparable damage to themselves for more than a decade, if not decades, by living in cities.

In October of 2017, the Supreme Court sought to end this annual cycle of deadly air pollution – and stayed a ban on the sale of fireworks during Diwali. It was keeping in mind the lessons of 2016, where the rampant bursting of fireworks added greatly to the pollution. But firework bans have acquired an ideological hue in India, and politicians called the ban ‘anti- Hindu‘. Almost in defiance, millions continued to burst crackers even as the air turned toxic. Once the smoke from Haryana’s farms reached Delhi, it was hard to tell whether the ban had any effect.

Most of India get their meals through small chulhas like this, burning biomass such as dung, wood or coal

There are the usual targets when it comes to clamping down on polluters – industries and vehicles. To tackle the latter, the country’s Road Transport and Highways Minister has set a target of 2030, for the nation’s automotive manufacturers to sell only electric vehicles. To take on industries, legislation like the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act has been in place since 1981. Environmental Courts like the National Green Tribunal make their name as among the most proactive courts in the world. But the elephant in the room remains an ancient, traditional method of cooking food, heating homes, and clearing crops – burning biomass. The stubble burning that devastates Delhi every year is a part of this, with a 2016 study estimating that air quality would improve by a staggering 90 percent if this was culled. Crop-burning added 17 times more particulate matter to the air than the city’s entire annual output from factories and vehicles.

The problem is that it has already been culled. In 2015, the NGT banned stubble burning across the country. But farmers are not paying attention.

For them, the stubble is an unneeded leftover from the process of growing paddy. In the month of October-November, they have a small window of time in which to change their crops for the Kharif or Winter season. Burning them is the quickest solution. But the government has suggested that they sell the straw as organic material.

This suggestion has been met with derision. Members of the Bhartiya Kisan Union threatened to drive 50 tractors laden with paddy waste around the city of Kurukshetra looking for buyers. When they find none, they would burn the waste in defiance of regulations.

What options there are – turning the straw into biomass, leaving it in the fields as natural fertilizer or even selling it to biogas plants – each comes with limitations. The main problem is that farmers have no incentive to stop burning their stubble, besides the humanitarian one of Delhi’s plight. India’s farmers are often drawn into situations like this, with few avenues forward.

Similarly, 87 percent of rural households and 26 percent of urban households in India depend on biomass for cooking. The traditional cooking stove – the chulha – is both the source of food as well as of respiratory illness for two-thirds of families in India. Efforts to increase adoption of Improved Cooking Stoves (ICS) – that burn less and cook faster – have met with a tepid response.

Navigating the socioeconomic tightrope of traditional livelihoods and habits, as well as that of farmer’s available options, is the challenge that awaits Indian policymakers. Taking crop-burning and biogas out of the equation is a must for India’s air to remain breathable. And that will still leave the problem of cutting the country’s fossil fuel dependence. But before India can burn less oil, Indians must burn less wood and straw.


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