Delhi NCR haze: action is good, informed action is better

Priya V K Singh

Mother, civil servant, patriot – I believe that we, the generation which has benefited most from India’s recent growth story, must do something about India’s crumbling institutions and the rapid spread of corruption if we are to guarantee our children a secure and happy future and a sense of pride in belonging to the country of their birth. I do what I can.

Delhi NCR is covered by a thick haze. Visibility is low, flights are being postponed, traffic has slowed down on roads as well. The air smells acrid, and is irritating the eyes and the throat. For those vulnerable in any manner —-children, the elderly, the sick —- the effects are particularly worrisome. The particulate levels have reached alarmingly high levels, and on social media, there are anguished posts about the compromised quality of life. As always, there are a handful of people who have decided to more than just voice their anguish. They will gather at a public place, and make enough noise to be heard by the State and Central governments —- but to what avail? When citizen demands are generic, the promises are vague and their implementation difficult to monitor.

Most of us discussing and debating the subject are not experts. We do not know for certain what is responsible for this deadly haze. Is it vehicular pollution? The huge amounts of fire crackers burst during Diwali week ? The noxious practice of burning waste ? Burning of crop stubble? All of these?

As citizens, we should demand answers from the innumerable bodies whose job it is to have the answers. Pollution is not a recent phenomenon. In the decades that we have tried to minimise, prevent and tackle pollution, government agencies must have collected mountains of data on the different sources of air pollution. They must also have a fair idea of the solutions, and their relative costs and benefits. Why then is the government silent? Why does it not tell us what the magnitude and contours of the problem are. The battle cannot succeed unless we know the monster we are battling. Does the monster eat animals or grass? Are there certain times of the year that the monster hibernates? Is it easier to render him harmless then ? Or does the monster never stop , so that our attack has to be relentless and ceaseless?

Perhaps the government remains silent because a well informed citizen is much more likely to demand accountability than an ignorant citizen. If you knew, for example, that the contribution of vehicular pollution to the haze Delhi NCR finds itself enveloped in is many, many times more than that of Diwali fire crackers, would you not focus on demanding mass transport? As matters rest, we do not know, and therefore we lurch from one cause to another, and can never quite gain the momentum to make the government provide long term solutions.

The burning of crop stubble, for example, is something that we only complain about as urban dwellers. What is crop stubble? Why do farmers burn it? Is there no other economical method for removing the crop stubble ? If we suffer adverse health consequences even at a distance, do the village communities not suffer as well? If they do, why do they not switch to another method ? When I tried to find out the answers to these questions, I got the following reply from farm policy analyst, Devinder Sharma:
” If it was economical, farmers would have done it. This is actually a problem created by technology. Harvester-combines leave around 8-9 inches of the stalk while harvesting. But no one is asking the companies to build suitable machines or take care of the problem that the technology has left behind. The solution to the problem of stubble burning lies with the technology makers.They must be asked to clean up. ”

From another citizen concerned with the air pollution caused by crop stubble burning, I got to know that a different solution has been successfully attempted in Fazilka, Punjab. Vikram Aditya Ahuja’s startup venture has trained educated unemployed youth, imparted training, and given them requisite equipment like Bailer, Rake, Reaper and Trollies. More than 1000 young farming entrepreneurs, covering most of the villages in Fazilka and Mukatsar district, now collect straw from nearby villages and then bundled straw is sent to nearest thermal plant & cardboard factories to produce electricity and cardboard respectively. They also make the fields ready for direct seeding of the new crop.As a result, for two years in succession, there has been no crop stubble burning in these places.

Armed with this information, I and others like me can ask the government why it does not create an environment conducive to the replication of the Fazilka model in other districts of Punjab and Haryana where crop stubble is being burnt. In this manner, urban dwellers can cease to look at farmers as either ignorant or callous, and the two can become partners in tackling pollution. Such partnerships are not what make governments happy. When groups/communities bridge their differences and find common ground, they are more difficult to fool, more difficult to divide, less amenable to being passive vote banks.

So, let us not simply complain about the smog. Let us not simply join protest assemblies ( these serve a very useful , but limited, purpose). Let us demand information, and then demand concrete, specific action. When we practice advocacy, let us be armed with all the pertinent information when we do that.

Action is good, informed action is better.

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