What will it take to have clean air?

Every year it is the same problem — End October to January, Northern India literally chokes on bad air. Farmers burn rice stubble in Punjab and Haryana. In the capital of India, Delhi, the air is so hazardous, schools have to be closed and people asked to stay at home. Is this a solution? Should life have to come to a stop every winter? Can a city of 20 million-plus closedown? What does this tell the world about India?

We lose billions of dollars every year in tourism, which used to flourish in the winter months because of the cool weather and sunshine. Now citizens want to run away and tourists will avoid our city like the plague. I was embarrassed that Angela Merkel paid a state visit to the capital when everyone in the city was masked, as in an operation theatre.

In an emergency such as this, surely the Prime Minister, our environment minister and the chief ministers of states that create and have pollution should meet urgently along with environmental scientists to outline measures for urgent and decisive steps. Steps that can be taken throughout the year to bring down pollution to safe levels, in our cities, towns and villages. 

There are best practices that we can adopt from countries that have similar problems and have managed to curb pollution massively. The pea soup fog a hundred years ago in London was written about extensively, yet today Londoners breathe clean air. Mexico City too had high levels of pollution not that long ago, but it has clean air now. Even China has managed to clean up its air and its cities were touted as the worst in the world.

What do we pay taxes for if even the air we breathe is killing us? Should we not address this on a war footing? What are the institutions we have built up over the years doing to address this problem—writing policy papers while citizens are dying?

Why can’t we have public transport as in Singapore; Tax, polluting vehicles, heavily; make ownership of cars more costly; bring in electric motorbikes and scooters fast and start doing everything possible to make our air cleaner. 

We need 10,000 more buses to ply on the streets in Delhi, but we don’t have the space to park them it seems. We need to stop allowing our sweepers to sweep dust from one end of the street to another. No country in the world does this. If you need to sweep up leaves or twigs, use rakes. Get enough water sprinkling vehicles to settle the dust and pave, cement or use fast-growing greenery in all areas that are prone to mud and dust. This is how dusty, dry cities like Dubai and others in the deserts do it.

Personal behavioural change is also necessary whether it is farmers or ordinary citizens. Ban all fires, whether it is from stubble or to keep warm.

Just like one has brought strict rules and high fines for speeding, jumping lights etc. one can easily bring heavy fines for people whether it is farmers or others for burning stubble. The Centre can easily provide machines for farmers to lease to clear stubble and use it ecologically.  There are several uses for stubble that people have talked about including turning it into mulch for pure fertilizer. 

A number of initiatives have been thought of that are practical and useful for rice residue such as fodder for animals; bio-thermal power plants; for mushroom cultivation; for production of bio-oil; paper production; bio-gas and in situ. Other uses include incorporation of paddy straw in soil, energy technologies and thermal combustion.

Why aren’t the governments of Punjab, Haryana and UP being made to take this up? What are the stumbling blocks? Why are we not being told about the problems so that our brightest can come up with solutions? 

How can we become a $5 trillion economy when are cities and towns have become gas chambers? Who will want to invest in such places?

Political Will and Urgency are needed as this is nothing short of national shame and a manmade disaster that can be prevented. To do nothing is criminal.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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