SRINAGAR, India (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - With air pollution worsening in New Delhi and beyond, Indian-administered Kashmir has decided to step up efforts to combat its own worsening air quality.
The state's government announced last month that it would begin enforcing an existing ban on the burning of leaves and wood pruned from trees.
The government said such burning is hazardous to residents' health and ash from the fires contributes to the melting of glaciers in the region.
Kashmir has millions of fruit and other trees, including poplar, willow and Chinar, an oriental plane tree. Some are traditionally pruned in autumn and early winter, or produce leaves that fall as a thick red and amber carpet on the ground.
Often the pruned wood and leaves are burned, with the ash combined with charcoal for winter heating or mixed into the soil to enrich it.
Under existing state environmental and municipal laws such burning is illegal, but this year the government has decided to enforce the ban, issuing circulars to district authorities asking them to strictly implement the law.
According to a note accompanying the order from the chief minister's office, burning is aggravating air pollution and producing fine particulate that is particularly hazardous when breathed in.
Dr Parvaiz Koul, head of internal and pulmonary medicine at Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences in Srinagar, said he believed burning was most likely contributing to a growing burden of respiratory disease in the city.
The number of patients treated at Srinagar's Chest Diseases Hospital rose from 95,000 in 2015 to 108,000 in the first 11 months of 2017, according to hospital records.
"We have observed that patients suffering from bronchitis and asthma are at high risk of developing exacerbation because of poor air quality, while the number of chest disease patients increases exponentially from November," said Naveed Nazir Shah, a senior consultant at the hospital.
TIME TO COMPOST?
The government has proposed composting leaves as the most eco-friendly alternative to burning them, with the composted leaves used as fertiliser or converted into bio-fuel pellets.
"As of now, we are collecting the leaves and are asking the people not to burn them. Experts will guide us how to turn them into compost," said Sofi Akbar, Srinagar's chief sanitation officer.
"Turning the leaves into compost makes more sense," Manzoor Ahmad, a state official who oversees Kashmir's municipal committees, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Kashmir government's decision follows high levels of pollution recorded in New Delhi in November, which led to the closing of schools for several days because of poor air quality, and the Indian Medical Association declaring a public health emergency in the capital.
The New Delhi government blames the smog in part on the burning of crop residues in neighbouring Punjab and Haryana states.
Enforcement of Srinagar's burning ban has run into some opposition, both from residents dependent on charcoal for winter heat and from those making it.
"If the government has all of a sudden woken up to the problem of pollution, it should have made proper arrangements for winter heating, especially when we witness long power outages in winters. How can we keep ourselves warm without charcoal in the absence of electricity?" asked Mohammad Sadiq, a Srinagar resident.
Kashmir endures harsh winters, with temperatures as low as minus 8 degrees C. Kashmiris traditionally use charcoal to keep warm in winter, burning it in kangris (fire pots) which they hold against their bodies under a large cloak.
In some parts of the state, people have been spotted flouting the new burning reststrictions.
"I make at least 15,000 rupees (S$315) every winter from selling charcoal. How can I deny it to myself? And poor people, who can't afford using electric heaters, need charcoal for keeping themselves warm," said Abdul Rashid, a charcoal seller.
The sanitation department's Akbar said the agency was working hard to enforce the law and denied that significant leaf burning was still happening.
"We are implementing the ban in letter and spirit," he said.
Shakil Romshoo, who heads the Earth Sciences Department at Kashmir University, noted that the amount of land being used to grow fruit trees and other crops in Kashmir is now nearly 20 times larger than in 1950, which means the amount of waste wood and leaf fall also has risen over that time.
Romshoo said that air quality in the Kashmir Valley deteriorates significantly during autumn, with the level of fine particulate known as PM2.5 at times hitting nearly six times the permissible level.
He said the burning is also one of the main sources of black carbon, or black ash that deposits on snow and glaciers in the mountains surrounding the Kashmir valley. Because blackened snow absorbs more sunlight, the deposits can cause glaciers to melt more rapidly than they otherwise would.
The note from chief minister's office said that black carbon deposits "may be responsible for the higher glacier recession rates witnessed in recent years."