Come winter, and Delhi is wrapped in a blanket of smog. It isn’t pretty. Also, it poses grave environmental, health and transportation hazards. Winter seems to have come early this year, and so has the smog. The economic costs are considerable: the winter schedule of airlines and trains invariably goes haywire owing to poor visibility. People breathe in more particulate matter, which increases the risk of respiratory illnesses — especially among those vulnerable to asthma and bronchitis. The problem’s genesis lies in natural and uncontrollable fog-causing factors such as thses: a drop in temperature, more moisture in the air and an absence of winds. Yet fog becomes smog through the alchemy of human activity: the pollution, smoke and dust that a city and its surroundings churn out.
Yet instead of co-ordinated action focused on such activities, government departments are busy blaming each other. Meteorologists say pollutants and dust particles entrap water vapour to produce smog; pollution control authorities maintain that it is fog that traps pollution, preventing it from dissipating. Others insist the dust load in Delhi’s air comes from the Rajasthan desert, ignoring the contribution made by the quarrying and stone-cutting illegally permitted around the capital. In any case, all the dust on Delhi’s roads is merely re-suspended in the air through a puzzling recourse to repeated sweeping. And locals and resident welfare associations are not stopped from burning the leaves of fall.
Delhi’s middle-class residents are not alone in their irresponsibility when it comes to burning biological waste. In Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, areas that should not even be growing rice burn paddy straw to clear their fields to plant a wheat crop as well. Recently released pictures of these fires by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) make a scary sight. Since farmers do not want to pay the labour costs involved in clearing farm waste, they put a match to it. That’s prohibited by law; but the prohibition is rarely enforced, given fears of the political fallout. Nor has the state followed court suggestions that cardboard, paper and packaging industries be incentivised in rural areas, to buy farmers’ paddy and wheat straw.
The courts have now recognised the degree to which there is a problem, and said that they will step in. This should be seen as an admission of failure by the executive. Nor is the judicial system always the most reliable framer of policy in such cases. The continuing controversy over the fallout of the last intervention the courts made in this issue – the compressed natural gas judgment over a decade ago – should be sign enough of that. The government must work, therefore, to curb pollution in industrial and other activities — which are increasing thanks to the lax enforcement of pollution control norms. The end of rural households’ dependence on coal stoves, which leads to a brown haze over all of north India, must also be hastened.