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Fresh air has become a luxury in Delhi

🔴 Ashok Gulati writes: Centre and states must work together to tackle the pollution in the National Capital Region

Written by Ashok Gulati |
Updated: December 7, 2021 7:41:59 am
On a particular day, say November 7, stubble burning contributed 48 per cent of Delhi’s air pollution, which fell to just 2 per cent on November 18. (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

When I was born into this world, I thought I had a right to breathe fresh air, as that was provided free by nature. But being born and brought up in Delhi, I now feel that fresh air has become a luxury, which I can avail only for a few days in a year. For the rest, I have to gasp for fresh air. My lifespan has already been cut short by almost three years by the polluted air, as per experts, and if business as usual continues, millions in the National Capital Region (NCR) will be choking in the “gas chamber” that Delhi has become.

Supreme Court (SC) judges have rightly pulled up the Delhi and central governments for not doing enough to correct this dire situation. They also remarked on what message we are sending to the world. If one looks at the capitals of G20 countries, Delhi’s air quality index (AQI) during November 1-15, is by far the worst at 312, as per World Air Quality Index Project. Compare this with Beijing (China) at 91, Buenos Aires (Argentina) at 26, Canberra (Australia) at 20, Sao Paulo (in place of Brasilia) at 18, Ottawa (Canada) at 25, and so on with most of them falling below 50, and some between 50 and 100. India is obviously a clear outlier. But India’s distinction goes beyond Delhi. As per the World Air Quality Report of 2020, prepared by IQAir (a Swiss organisation), of the 30 most polluted cities in the world, 22 are in India. So, the problem is much deeper, raising doubts about the quality of our urbanisation.

Before a cure comes the right diagnosis. As per the report of the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, energy generation (largely coal-based thermal power) is the biggest culprit with a share of 44 per cent in greenhouse gas emissions, followed by manufacturing and construction (18 per cent), agriculture (14 per cent), transport (13 per cent) industrial processes and product use (8 per cent) and waste burning (3 per cent).

To replace coal in energy generation, solar and wind is the way to go at the all-India level. In this regard, the Prime Minister has done a commendable job in Glasgow to commit that 50 per cent of India’s energy will be from renewable sources by 2030. But the current model in solar energy is heavily tilted towards companies. They are setting up large solar farms on degraded or less fertile lands. But that land is gone for the next 25 years only for solar energy. Nothing else can be grown on those corporate solar farms. It is good from an efficiency standpoint to minimise the cost of energy generation, which luckily is now even cheaper than the cost of thermal energy. I have no problem with this model. However, what if we supplement that model by developing solar farms on farmers’ fields? This would require solar panels to be fixed at a 10 feet height with due spacing to let enough sunlight come to the plants for photosynthesis. These “solar trees” can then become the “third crop” for the farmers, earning them regular income throughout the year, provided the law allows them to sell this power to the national grid. The Delhi government’s pilot in Ujwa KVK land on these lines showed that farmers can earn up to Rs 1 lakh per acre per year from this “solar farming”. This is on top of the two crops they can keep growing under those solar trees. This will double farmers’ income within a year. The investment of “solar trees” in farmers’ fields is still done by companies. The only thing that farmers have to sign on is a sort of bond that they will not uproot these solar trees for 25 years, as that is the life cycle of such solar projects. Doubling farmers’ income by 2022-23 is a dream that Prime Minister Modi has aspired to, and here is a chance to turn that dream into a reality.

But let me come back to Delhi’s pollution as Delhiites are gasping for breath right now. As per the System of Air Quality Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), the reasons for poor AQI differ day to day. For example, between November 9 and 13, 30 per cent of Delhi’s pollution was due to stubble burning, another 22 per cent from transport, 18 per cent from external (other than stubble burning), 12 per cent from industries, 4 per cent from bio-fuels, dust 8 per cent and the rest-local (6 per cent). But this contribution of stubble burning drops to just 8 per cent if the period considered is from October 30 to November 3. On a particular day, say November 7, stubble burning contributed 48 per cent of Delhi’s air pollution, which fell to just 2 per cent on November 18. The fact is that even for a day, when the AQI is above 350, when Delhiites are already gasping for breath, this stubble burning can be the last proverbial straw on the camel’s back. The Centre needs to sit down with neighbouring states and come up with a plan to reduce the rice area in this belt, which is already depleting the water table, creating methane and nitrous oxide, to incentivise farmers to switch to other crops through better returns than in rice cultivation.

To tackle vehicular pollution, we need a massive drive towards electric vehicles (EVs), and later towards green hydrogen when it becomes competitive with fossil fuels. Scaling up EVs quickly demands creating charging stations on a war footing, much like we developed vaccines for Covid-19 and scaled up hospital beds during the second wave of the pandemic. Parking lots in offices, housing societies, hotels, hospitals, shopping malls, petrol pumps, etc, need to have fast charging points. This is a business opportunity, but lawmakers can expedite it by changing the rules of the game and providing upfront subsidies on EVs, if need be, equal to the taxes on diesel/petrol vehicles. The hesitancy to buy EVs due to lack of charging stations must go.

Delhi also needs a good carbon sink. Rejuvenating the Ridge area with dense forests and developing thick forests on both sides of the Yamuna may help.

This column first appeared in the print edition on December 6, 2021 under the title ‘My right to breathe’. Gulati is Infosys Chair Professor for Agriculture at ICRIER

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