To deal with rising air pollution in Delhi and the National Capital Region, the Central Government issued an ordinance on October 29, 2020 signed by the President. Violators of this ordinance are liable to either imprisonment for five years or a fine of one crore rupees or both.

Under the ordinance released by the Ministry of Law and Justice, the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) has been dissolved and a 20-member committee has been set up in its place. Now the Commission has the power to take legal action against the violators of the new ordinance.

This ordinance has been implemented immediately in Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh.

Central Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar told reporters that the new ordinance will significantly reduce the air pollution in Delhi and the National Capital Region. However, the farmers termed the ordinance as an act of vengeance of the Central Government as the Central Government had implemented such an ordinance at a time when farmers are harvesting paddy and evacuating the field by setting fire to the paddy residue to enable sowing wheat.

On the other hand, they are struggling to repeal the three agricultural laws passed by the Central Government.

Burning of paddy and wheat residues in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh have been blamed for rising air pollution in Delhi and the Nation Capital Region for nearly a decade. In view of the declining groundwater level in the state of Punjab, the Central Government had decided to ban planting of paddy before June 10. As a result, the harvesting of crop also started in October instead of September.

With the onset of winter in October, temperatures in these states begin to dip. So, low temperature, presence of moisture, dust and smoke particles in the air, local and geographical conditions become responsible to create a worse form of air pollution known as ‘Smog’ in these states. Earlier when harvesting was taking place in September, due to high temperature and high speed of wind at the time of harvesting, the pollutants which were released into the air by the burning of paddy straw did not cause the same level of air pollution either in these states or Delhi.

Delhi - this year as every year - is engulfed in smog with the onset of winters. The Delhi Government immediately started blaming the adjoining states for air pollution. The Central Government, already not in the line with farmers’ interest, took an opportunity to issue a new ordinance stating that the farmers are responsible for smog of Delhi.

We have to go a little further back to find out who is really responsible for this pollution. The air in Delhi was heavily polluted even in 1990-2000 decade but at that time the intention of Central government was impartial, so they found the real reason to save Delhi’s air from being polluted by diesel-driven busses and auto-rickshaws and suggested to use CNG in place of diesel. With these measures, the Central Government was able to control air pollution levels in Delhi because at that time only auto-rickshaws and busses were using diesel. Because of these measures, air quality in Delhi improved for some time.

Again, from the last decade air pollution has been causing havoc in Delhi and the National Capital Region and the Delhi Government is turning a finger to the adjoining states to shoulder its responsibilities. The real reason for increasing air pollution in Delhi is the unplanned development. In recent years, due to economic development, the number of cars have increased from only 24 lakh in 2000 to 1 crore and 12 lakh in 2018, which are releasing large amount of Carbon dioxide (CO2), Carbon monoxide (CO) , Sulphur dioxide, Ozone and other gases daily which pollute Delhi’s environment. According to a study conducted by the Meteorological Department of India and the Center for Science and Environment 70 percent of air pollution in Delhi is caused by vehicles only.

Research conducted by I.I.T. Kanpur highlighted that different sources are releasing 312 tons of Sulphur Dioxide, 142 tons of Nitrogen oxide, 59 tons of P.M. 2.5 and 143 tons of P.M. I0 every day in Delhi’s environment. Out of that 98 percent of Nitrogen oxide, 60 percent of Sulphur Dioxide, 14 percent of P.M. I0 and 10 percent of P.M 2.5 are released only by industrial units.

Apart from these pollutants, Delhi has numerous high mounds of garbage which burn all year round, emitting large amount of dangerous gases, smoke and dust particles which pollute the air. The city also has continuous activities and thermal plants which are responsible for air pollution. Neither the Centre nor the State Government refute that these internal activities of Delhi are responsible for pollution in Delhi because the skies had cleared up during the COVID-19 lockdown, meanwhile farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh were harvesting wheat crops and burning wheat straws.

According to recent research study of P.A.U, Ludhiana, smoke from burning paddy straw remains trapped in Punjab because smoke only disperses into farther directions when speed of winds is high but when air is still, smoke leads to buildup of smog in its proximity. The above study also shows that in 2017, 2108 and 2019, the speed of wind was below 5km per hour which couldn’t have drifted this localized smog from Punjab all the way to Delhi and the National Capital Region.

Besides Punjab, if we analyze the other states, in Rajasthan total area under wheat crop is very low. Paddy plantation is not possible in Rajasthan due to scarcity of water. Moving on, Uttar Pradesh can receive polluted air from Delhi if high winds are blowing else if the air blows from South-East then it could drift Delhi smoke to pollute Haryana and Punjab’s air because air knows no boundaries and doesn’t seek anyone’s permission to travel. Surrounding states are less responsible in polluting Delhi’s air, but Delhi has been a key player in polluting the air of its neighboring states.

Everyone who is staying in Delhi and the National Capital Region and disobeys the ordinance must be fined and punished by law. The difference is Delhiites are polluting the air for profit, personal comforts and pleasure whereas farmers in helplessness pollute the air while producing different crops for the entire country due to lack of resources and being poor.

The burning of paddy stubble and wheat straw generates 6 percent pollution for 15-20 days, only if the direction of air is flowing North-West otherwise Delhi itself is solely responsible for its air pollution. So both the Delhi and Central Governments should take initiatives like they did in 2000 to mitigate the grave problem of air pollution but not punish the poor farmers.

The Central Government should not deny any national and international reports of air pollution or find a scapegoat to blame it on. Rather the Government should have a solid strategy to mitigate the existing issues and tackle future risks related to air pollution. Air pollution is on the rise not only in Delhi and the National Capital Region but also in the other states of the country.

According to a report by Greenpeace Organization, India, released on January 21 2020, 80 percent of cities have polluted air according to national air quality standards. Lungli (Mizoram) is the only city in the entire country which has clean air according to the international air quality standard. Recently, a report called State of Global Air 2020, 16.7 lakh people died in India out of which 1 lakh 16 thousand are babies who died in their first month of their life due to polluted air.

The Central Government rather than making partisan discriminatory ordinances or laws against farmers should work on making public transportation convenient and efficient which might lead to decrease in use of private vehicles for transportation and leaning on public transportation options.

Pedestrians and bike riders should be encouraged by the Government. Industrial plants should have air purifiers, and there should be alternatives for thermal power plants for electricity generation. These new energy alternates should be safe. Construction work should have safety measures. New scientific techniques should be used to dispose of garbage. The Government should provide farmers access to affordable machinery to collect paddy stubble and wheat straw.

The Central Government instead of punishing farmers should cooperate with them, understanding their problems, provide helpful solutions and together save the nation’s air from getting polluted. It would become possible by increasing the share of national income being given to the agricultural sector. This share must be enough to satisfy the basic needs of the farming community.

Dr Gurinder Kaur is Professor, Geography Department, Punjabi University, Patiala.