How Delhi earned the title of World’s Most Polluted City

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In November 2017, Delhi earned the unenviable position of world’s most polluted city registering an Air Quality Index of 999 which was way above the Hazardous (500) limit. Metros across the world bear the major brunt of environmental pollution, likewise Delhi is at the receiving end for India. Adding to the pollution, Delhi’s proximity to the Indo-Gangetic plane – India’s agricultural “breadbasket,” comprised of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.   

The Issue 

Agriculture in the breadbasket region is typically characterized by two growing seasons: a predominantly winter wheat crop, harvested in April–May, and a predominantly summer rice crop, harvested in October–November. Since the 1980s many farmers in these regions have switched to harvest-efficient mechanized farming techniques that leave behind abundant crop residue. Shortened cropping intervals of about 10-15 days between subsequent cropping seasons have left farmers with the only option to burn the leftover residue to prepare for their subsequent planting. Winds carrying these smoke-fires from the North West, enter Delhi which adversely affect the air-quality during winters. According to observations from NASA (2016), these farm fires last till mid-November when the wheat crop is sown. On an average it is estimated that 600 mn tonnes of surplus agricultural biomass is burned every year.

The Resolution

Paddy-straw, unlike most other crop-residue, is high in silica content and low in calorific value limiting its utilisation in traditional in-situ crop management techniques like animal fodder and energy conversion. A task force constituted by the NITI Aayog and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has been convened for the management of the unique crop-residue. Implementing agencies both at the Centre (Ministry of Agriculture, Cooperation & Farmers Welfare) and the State (Department of Agriculture) have been assigned to the effected States.

The Stakeholders

The central government in addition to providing financial support to farmers for the upscaling of technologies for crop harvesting and the utilisation of farm residue – happy seeder, zero tell seed driller; in-situ mass management training modules have also planned for a) ploughing the residue back into the field and; b) extraction and usage for other purposes.

State-level Departments of Agriculture will oversee the implementation of central-level policy and provide inputs from ground-level processes through Executive Committees formed at the district-level. At the local level, committees involving famers groups and progressive farmers will be formed with active participation of Panchayat Raj institutions to ensure non-burning of residue by creating awareness amongst farmers for better soil management practices. Financial rewards of up to 1L per panchayat for non-burning have also been planned.

Industry will be critical to this initiative by providing market-based approaches with continuous monetary and near-monetary inducements. The removal of crop residue is a time-consuming process, famers must become self-incentivised with economically viable alternatives to ensure non-burning for the long-run. The Ministry of Agriculture has ensured regulatory support for business models looking at holistic solutions for farm residue utilisation. Invest India is involved with identifying innovative technologies and solutions for crop burning and have reached out to local players and prospective foreign governments and their respective stakeholders to facilitate pilot projects at the district-level to contribute to a resolution.

Agricultural research institutions will play a joint role with industry by supplementing pilot solutions with active research and trials. Additionally, they will act as a single source for providing information, education and awareness on in-situ crop residue management to ground-level planning committees.

The way Forward

All said and done, biomass management is not going to be an easy task. Owing to decades of poor farming practices and the unsuitability of rice crops in said regions the issue of crop-burning has been a long time coming. While changing farming patterns might seem like the obvious solution – the livelihoods of millions of farmers are at stake. It is time for all stakeholders to take consolidated steps to tackle this issue of national importance to ensure that last November doesn’t become a permanent feature of Delhi’s winter.