'We're praying': Officials say India will not act on smog this year

An Indian school boy cycles to school after three days off due to heavy smog in Amritsar on Nov 13, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - As pollution level climbed to 12 times above the recommended limit this week in India's capital, government officials said they knew what was needed to control the smoky haze, but nothing would be done, at least this year.

A major source of the smog at this time of year across northern India, including New Delhi, is farmers burning the stubble of the previous crop to prepare for new plantings in November.

An estimated US$600 million is needed to provide farmers with alternatives, but the Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and opposition parties in power in New Delhi and nearby Punjab states are squabbling over who will pay, said three federal government officials who have been briefed on the situation.

"Nothing more is likely to happen this year," said one of them. "We're now praying. Only God can save us."

The official said he had bought pollution masks for his family and installed air purifiers at his home in New Delhi, now the most polluted city in the world, according to the Brookings Institute. The city is home to more than 20 million people.

A spokesman of the federal environment ministry declined comment on federal and state governments bickering over funds to tackle the problem of stubble burning.

The provincial leaders of New Delhi and neighbouring Haryana states, after exchanging barbs on Twitter for days, agreed on Wednesday on measures to control the smog - in 2018.

As a thick blanket of haze settled over parts of northern India, including the capital, over the past few days, the official response to what has become an annual phenomenon has been marked by paralysis and lack of ownership, interviews with government officials show.

It's not just the crop burning - a combination of industrial smog, vehicle exhaust and dust envelop the region every year as winter approaches and wind speeds drop. It's been particularly bad this year with levels of PM 2.5, tiny particulate matter that reaches deep into the lungs, climbing to over 600 last week, according to a U.S. Embassy measure.

The upper limit for healthy air is 50, the government has said.

Respiratory diseases killed about 10 people a day in the year to March 2017 in the national capital region, according to the health ministry. The World Bank estimates pollution cost the country as much as 7.7 percent of the GDP in 2013.

In 2015, Modi launched the first national air quality index in New Delhi and promised to take steps to clean the air.


Authorities temporarily banned diesel-run power generators, construction, burning of garbage and plying of trucks with non-essential goods, but construction and truck movements were allowed to resume on Thursday as pollution levels dropped.

In recent days, authorities also began to use fire engines to spray water over parts of the capital hoping it would help settle the dust. But the steps have largely proved ineffective.

"We've tried our best to tackle the situation, but as policymakers we've failed to address the main problem of stubble burning," the government official said.

It's not a new problem - it happens each year after mid-October when farmers start harvesting summer crops in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana.

With rising labour costs and a short window to plant the next crop, most farmers burn the stubble and straw in their fields to clear them for the next planting.

Since October, more than 40,000 fire incidents have been recorded in Punjab, as farmers disposed of nearly 20 million tonnes of rice waste, environment groups said.

But the stubble issue has become more acute in recent years because mechanised harvesters leave more of a residue than crops plucked by hand. Such harvesters are increasingly popular in the wealthy northern states, where farmer lobbies are also politically powerful.

"The situation has worsened this year because of the slow wind speed," which means the pollutants hang in the air for longer, said D. Shah, a scientist at the state-run Central Pollution Control Board of India.

NITI Aayog, the federal government's economic planning think-tank, has estimated farmers would need handouts worth about $500 million a year to switch to alternative ways of disposing farm stubble, said an official who was involved in the preparation of the report.

Another $100 million is needed to reward local bodies for adopting best practices and funding awareness campaigns, the official said.

Punjab alone would require about 20 billion rupees ($300 million) annually from the federal government to encourage farmers to adopt alternative ways, said Roshan Sunkaria, a senior state government official.

Environmental groups say nothing is happening on the ground to ease the situation and the only hope was that the crop burning would soon end and wind speeds would pick up.

"Politicians are playing with public health by blaming each other," said Usman Nasim, a scientist at private think-tank Centre for Science and Environment.

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