• SumanJM

Mayday, Mayday - The Health Emergency And Air Pollution In Northern India

Much like every year, the beginning of November brought a blanket of smoke for Northern India. Amplified by the fog due to the onset of winter, the air became unbreathable to the extent that you couldn't go out to run, you couldn't see beyond 5Ft, and the sale for masks and air purifiers skyrocketed. To make matters worse, the government and ruling bodies made it a political fight instead of helping people. There were blame games, finger-pointing, and unnecessary tweeting - of course, all in vain. Like every year, no one was prepared even though we all knew it was coming.

The stark contrast - How Gurugram looked before and after being engulfed by the smog

The useless social media outcry

Every year post the apocalyptic scenario woke netizens start sharing their concerns on social media. Some blame Diwali, some blame those who use ACs and some just rant. This year among the social media noise and unproductive discussions, I decided to find out why it actually happens. Didn't take much, a lot of meaningful scientific perspectives came up on the first google search itself.

What, why, and who?

The smoke comes from crop stubble burning. Farmers across North India prepare fields for the next crop after harvesting paddy and they do so by burning the remains of the last crop. But why does it stay over NCR, parts of UP and not other surrounding areas? That's because of geographical location and meteorological factors. The National capital region (NCR) and parts of Haryana and UP are in a flat region below the Himalayan range. This time of the year, when winds are slow, and the air becomes denser due to cold, it results in the air getting trapped within the plains. Since Delhi is the capital of India, it's been making headlines in the news, but people in parts of Haryana, UP, and Punjab are suffering too.

Stubble burning in Delhi, Gurgaon, Haryana, Punjab
Image borrowed from India Today

The timing couldn't be worse as around this time, pollution levels soar due to fireworks and crackers used to celebrate Diwali. However, I am impressed by how many people recognized the harmful side effects, and with the ban on fireworks, comparatively fewer crackers were used this year.

Is odd-even rule the best we can do?

For a couple of years, the Delhi government has been making efforts to reduce traffic and pollution by restricting the usage of passenger cars. On even dates, only even number plates can drive and same for odd days. While odd-even can be useful in controlling pollution, it does not reduce existing trapped smog. Passenger vehicles don't even produce that level of visible pollutants. Speaking from experience, if cars were a contributing factor, Bangalore would be the haziest of all cities.

Moreover, the state of public transport in our country is not that great. Yes, limited use of personal vehicles has many environmental and lifestyle benefits, but right now, it is about the seasonal smog NCR and surrounding areas are experiencing. Once the pollution has set in, only wind can blow it away into the higher atmosphere, and rain can help the dust to settle.

The lose-lose situation and the potential solution

So why has this become a recurring problem in the past few years? A few years ago, due to deteriorating groundwater levels, farmers were instructed to delay paddy sowing to conserve groundwater in summer. Paddy consumes a lot of water, and while delaying the planting to monsoon solved the water problem, it has created a new issue of air pollution.

A potential solution to this problem is that the government needs to take the stubble off the farmers' hands and find a use for it. Infact, a happy seeder machine is already out there for farmers to use. We, the citizens, can help farmers afford that machine by making small donations, so this doesn't happen again next year. There are several fundraisers floating around to help farmers rent or buy happy seeders. Find one and donate today! If you are an influencer start a fundraiser, as a common person I want to start my own and already researching the technicalities involved. I have also contacted a few farmer associations and experts for guidance, stay tuned to hear more.

Speaking specifically of Gurugram, the sky is already feeling cleaner because of the extreme winds and slight drizzling in the past few days. Due to lower temperatures, dense pollution noticeably returns early morning, but as the sun comes up and the air gets hotter, it goes away. I remember, last year it stayed a month-long and more. This year we got lucky.

Update Nov 13th, 2019 - I think I jinxed it, the smog is back. After that clarity (see pic) it's back to the atrocious AQI of 400+.