Delhi’s biggest coal power plant was shut down yesterday as a new emergency plan to improve air quality in one of the world’s most polluted cities came into force, officials said.
Under the new strategy, restrictions on construction sites and traffic will be imposed depending on the air quality in the megacity of some 20mn people.
When the air is classed as “poor”, as it was yesterday, authorities will ban the burning of garbage in landfills as well as firecrackers and certain construction activities.
When the air is “very poor” diesel generators will be halted, parking fees hiked and more public transport provided.
“Severe” measures include closing brick kilns.
When it reaches “severe+”, a new category, authorities will stop the entry of trucks except those with essential goods and regulate the number of cars on the road.
The Badarpur thermal plant was temporarily closed yesterday because of its high contribution to pollution in the city.
Smog spikes during winter in Delhi, when air quality often eclipses the World Health Organisation’s safe levels.
Cooler air traps pollutants – such as from vehicles, building sites and farmers burning crops stubble in regions out side the Indian capital – close to the ground.
Authorities in the sprawling city attempted to implement similar measures last winter but to little avail.
This is partly because authorities are powerless to prevent some sources of pollution.
“Our aim is to stop the air quality from deteriorating further though certain factors are out of our control such as crop burning, wind speed and lack of public transportation,” environment authority official Bhure Lal said.
Late last year, Delhi and a large part of northern India were covered in a dangerous toxic smog that forced authorities to shut schools, ban diesel-run generators, construction, burning of garbage and non-essential truck deliveries.
The WHO said earlier this year India was home to the world’s 14 most polluted cities, with Delhi ranked the sixth most polluted.
As pollution levels climbed to 12 times the recommended limit and the Indian Medical Association declared a public health emergency in the capital last year, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal called the city a “gas chamber.” On Friday, he warned the city may face the same fate this year because of the unrestrained stubble burning.
After last year’s crisis, the Indian government introduced some measures aimed at curbing the crop fires, in particular offering to pay up to 80% of certain farm equipment, such as a Straw Management System (SMS) that attaches to a harvester and shreds the residue.
The plan was for the shredded material to be mulched using another machine and irrigated at least twice to get it to decompose. All this would be done without any crops being burned.
The only problem is that many farmers in Haryana and Punjab said the plan wasn’t working.
They say that was largely because the subsidy for SMS and mulching machines wasn’t covering the costs of the equipment and the labour involved. It was still much cheaper and easier to burn the residue.
“Farmers know about the repercussions of burning crop stubble and that’s why you won’t come across a single farmer who really wants to continue with the practice,” said Hardev Singh, 58, who grows rice and wheat in the village of Shahjahanpur, which is part of Haryana’s Karnal district.
But the cost of disposing of crop residue is so prohibitive that most farmers are forced to set the stubble on fire, Singh said.
It is also time consuming, and the farmers do not have a lot of time. After harvesting rice, farmers get a short window to plant winter crops such as wheat and rapeseed, and late sowing means lower yields.
The farmers also complained about the lengthy bureaucratic processes to claim the subsidies for the machines.
“The fact that government officials want us to use expensive machines like SMS clearly shows that they are far removed from reality,” said Sandeep Pannu, who leases his farms to small growers in Phulak village in Haryana.
For most farmers, burning the residue does not cost more than Rs2,000 per acre but using the machines raises the cost to Rs6,000 despite an 80% subsidy from the government, Pannu said.
The message from Haryana and Punjab could be disconcerting for the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose office has been actively involved in framing policies and taking initiatives to help avoid the repeat of last year’s dangerous spike in pollution levels.
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