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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 46-47 November 11 & November 18, 2023

Air Quality Crisis in Delhi and Agroecological Alternatives | Soma Marla

Saturday 11 November 2023, by Soma S. Marla


Friday (3rd of November), Delhi woke up to a thick layer of toxic smog, as the IQAir put the city’s air quality index (AQI) at 611 in the ‘hazardous’ category. A reading of 0-50 is considered good. Anything between 400-500 is unhealthy. Schools across the city have been shuttered and construction activity halted as the city was declared the world’s most polluted. Although this is a recurring annual event in North India (now joined by Mumbai) in the beginning of winter, governments are resorting to short term measures instead of finding long term solutions.

Sources of pollution

Delhi chokes usually around this time of the year as air quality falls to dangerous levels due to burning of crop stubble in the states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttara Pradesh that borders New Delhi. It was estimated that about 3000 metric tons of air pollutants were emitted every day in Delhi, with a major contribution from vehicular pollution (67%), followed by coal-based thermal power plants (12%). Not surprising that there are nearly 80 lakh vehicles cruise around the city daily belching toxic exhausts. Besides city also generates much of its own pollution from industrial emissions, dust, burning of solid waste and dust from construction sites. Air pollution in Delhi and NCR peaked at 20 times the permissible level of PM2.5 (a measure of airborne particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns). As a consequence, poor air quality is affecting lives of vulnerable population – the younger children, the elderly, and those with co-morbidities, chronic respiratory disease or cardiac problem. With every third child is asthmatic or suffers from respiratory problems. Apart from Delhi and Mumbai, residents of many other cities in the North are also breathing toxic air. As per the CPCB data of Wednesday, seven other cities are worse than Delhi with an AQI of 414, Hanumangarh in Rajasthan. In Mumbai currently 6,500 constructions are operational generating huge volumes of dust. Unlike Mumbai, where Arabian sea breezes to clear the air, Delhi is land locked and takes a few weeks for returning to normalcy.

This year Air pollution in Delhi and adjoining areas of the national capital peaked at 20 times the permissible level of PM2.5 (a measure of airborne particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns). This year authorities woke up too late and Delhi and Mumbai have banned entry of big vehicles, put-up air purifiers at major locations, temporarily closed thermal power plants and banned constructions and open burning. Despite tall promises made by governments in Punjab, UP and Haryana, satellite data mapped as on 2nd November, nearly 6,000 stuble burning incidents were recorded. Yet, no respite in improvement of air quality is noticed. Putting up sprinklers or nets are not solutions and these measures are short lived.

Major Problems

Two major problems- vehicular emissions and burning of paddy stubbles after harvesting in agrarian belt surrounding Delhi are to be addressed immediately.
 Increasing number of automobiles

The Indian automobile sector has grown into a ₹8.7 lakh-crore ($108 billion) industry by producing 2.7 crore vehicles in FY23 (Primus Partners, June 2023) with production volumes, India ranks third in passenger vehicles (PV) and first in two-wheelers globally. Not surprisingly nearly 80 lakh automobiles cruise around NCR rgion everyday. Besides, Union government’s allocation lakhs of crore rupees annually for construction of highway road network crisscrossing Delhi to Mumbai to Chennai. Even the huge automobile plants are Multi National owned by and are just assembly plants importing engines to gear boxes from overeats. These plants are highly automated employing a few thousands of workers thus generating minimum employment. Instead of promotion of public transport and metro network government is heavily bent on to boost the automobile industry.

Paddy stubble burning

Farmers generally follow Rice and wheat cropping system. Rice crop is harvested by the end of October and followed immediately by sowing of wheat crop. So as to prepare land and sow wheat crop immediately, farmers do not have time to let the harvested paddy stubbles to decompose in the field.Is the chief reason why farmers burn the paddy stubbles to shorten the intermediate time gap.Neither farmers can not afford tractors to plough back the harvested crop residues back in to soil as the cost of diesel is high and increases cost of production.

Indian Council of Agricultuerl Research Institute, Delhi has come out with a natural degrading Biocompost enzyme mix. This microbiological cellulose degrading enzyme mix helps faster decomposition of stubbles. Indian soils are very poor in organic carbon (Humus) due to excessive application of chemical fertilizers in crop cultivation. However, farmers have a short interval of 10 to 15 days to prepare land and sow the next wheat crop. And the biodegrading kit is useful but takes nearly three to four weeks to decompose hard paddy stubbles. Promise by state and Union governments of provision of machines to plough back stubbles remained mere schemes on paper with no machines available to farmers in villages.

Rice cultivation is highly input intensive requiring large doses of irrigation,, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Rice is a water guzzling crop requiring nearly 2,500 litres of water to produce 1 Kg of rice grain. But canal irrigation supported by major dams like Bakrnangal provides only 21 percent, while remaining 71 percent is met with pumping underground water. As a result of huge wter foot prints today ground water has almost dpleted in Punjab. Besides heavy use of pesticides, weedicides severely contaminated water bodies, ground water with hazardous chemicals, apart from endangering killing of birds and many farmer friendly insects and microorganisms and entering in to human food chain. We are exporting Basmati rice worth of $ 5 bln every year to other countries. Imagine how many cusacs of water we are depleting from our soils and exporting to other nations.

Marx and Nature

Karl Marx remarked, how locally produced crops are exported to urban areas and creating high pollution in London. To maintain natural balance and soil fertility food waste and crop waste should be brought back to fields. Renown EcologicalMarxist Belomy Foster named Karl Mark’s remarks as Metabolic Drift and urges “ Grow locally and consume locally” to secure natural balance.

Agro ecological alternatives

Till the beginning of Green revolution, in early 1970’s farmers in Punjab, Haryana, Western UP mostly cultivated wheat, Bajra, redgram, Urad and mustard. These crops require nearly 28 percent less water per hectare for cultivation as compared to rice. Union government and FCI mostly purchases wheat and paddy and not other crops from farmers. So, farmers resorted to Rice- wheat cropping systems abandoning other crops. This seriously affected the nutritional security of rural Punjab as farmers do not consume millets, oils and proteins in their diet.


Union government imports vegetable oils and pulses (dal) by paying nearly 17 bln dollrs to Australia, Canada, Mozambique, Russia, Myanmar and other countries to meet domestic shortage.

By providing attractive MSPs as recommended by Dr. M.S. Swaminathan Commission to millets, oilseeds and dal, farmers will replace high water guzzling rice with bajra, oil seeds and dals. There should be a legal guarantee for purchase of the other crops as well. This measure solves ground water crisis and averts environmentally hazardous stubble burning, making space for next wheat crop. Provision of attractive and guaranteed MSPs not only environmentally beneficial but largely solves the problem of stubble burning in the crop belt surrounding Delhi. This would provide both income and nutritional security to small and tenant farmers apart from bringing self sufficiency in vegetable oils and pulses.

Instead of adopting short time measures and promotion of automobile industry both Union and state governments should focus on long term agroecological solutions to provide farmers income security as well as clean air to people.

(Author: Dr. Soma Marla, Principal Scientist (retd), Indian Council for Agricultueral Research, New Delhi)

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