The toxic smog enveloping Delhi and the national capital region this week is proof about how the hugely empowered-on-paper National Green Tribunal’s directives are violated with impunity. How governments cutting across party lines plead helplessness in implementing the law, clearly for lack of preparedness. The smog in Delhi-NCR just before the onset of winter is becoming an annual nightmare, with a major part of it caused by the smoke emitted from approximately 35 million tonnes of stubble regularly burnt by farmers in Haryana and Punjab alone, as they ready their fields for winter crops. Looking at the cataclysmic levels of air pollution in Delhi-NCR this year, it is obvious that neither of the two state governments—or Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh—has been able to ensure that the NGT’s 2015 directive banning this practice be implemented. The two state governments have been talking about how their respective pollution control boards have been monitoring the situation on the ground, and have fined errant farmers. But the smog in Delhi-NCR is not showing any evidence of that. Instead, reports are that crop burning in Punjab peaked towards the end of October. Add to this unfavourable weather conditions, and North India has been left choking.

With the lack of economical ways of disposing of the stubble, it is but natural that farmers would resort to the age-old practice of burning their crop residues. Unless the state governments conduct sensitisation campaigns, find alternative ways of disposing of the stubble, incentivise the farmers and ensure that their input costs do not go up if they adopt environment-friendly measures, there is unlikely to be a solution to the problem. Moreover, this has to be a sustained effort, not knee-jerk reactions such as fining a handful of farmers when hundreds of thousands of them resort to this practice, unconcerned about its effects.

The honourable Supreme Court, being rightly concerned about the critical nature of Delhi-NCR’s air quality, banned the sale of fire-crackers throughout the region for Diwali. But, as expected, curbing a day’s bursting of firecrackers did not alleviate the situation. In fact, Delhi-NCR’s current air pollution index is far worse than it was in the time of Diwali. All that the SC order achieved were large-scale violations and voluble unhappiness over curbs on what was seen as the people’s right to practice their religion.

Similarly, the now withdrawn odd-even diktat by the Delhi government was not expected to achieve much, if anything at all. Curbing the movement of pollution-tested private vehicles for four days in the national capital would have only inconvenience commuters, especially when the public transport system was not geared to take any additional load. More importantly, what could be achieved in four days?

Similarly, the whole purpose of banning the entry of trucks in Delhi, except those carrying essential items, is defeated when these heavy vehicles are allowed a free run of the NCR. Unless of course by some sort of divine fiat, air pollutants decide to stop entering Delhi because trucks are being stopped on the borders of the national capital.

Study after study has shown that around 40% to 50% particulate matters in Delhi’s air come from road dust. Compared to that, vehicles, including the noxious diesel vehicles, contribute to around 10%-20% of air pollution. Industries and the use of firewood and kerosene for cooking contribute to the rest of the pollution. But somehow it is controlling the dust that gets ignored when it comes to taking long-term measures. Once Delhi was known for its greenery, but this green-cover is gradually receding, with much needed construction activities acquiring a frenetic pace. In the process, Delhi-NCR is turning into a dust bowl. Why cannot the planting and nurturing of thousands of trees be made mandatory for every construction project undertaken in the city and its neighbouring areas? Why cannot every construction project be given the job of sprinkling water in the surrounding areas to ensure that loose dust is not swirling in the air? And these are year-round jobs; not week-long measures. Citizens pray that 2018 will be different from the hell that Delhi has become, thanks to pollution.

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