In the last five years, the term ‘Delhi pollution’ has become imprinted in the minds of Indians. It is seen as a major political issue in the state of Delhi, gets huge media coverage and gets the attention of several senior politicians.
There’s no doubt that the national capital is one of the most polluted in the world. Indices are off the charts, going from dangerous to hazardous to ‘are you crazy’ levels. Alongside super high PM2.5 and AQI levels, pictures of little children wearing face masks and going to schools in Delhi caused massive alarm. In a country where we can’t seem to get enough of Hindu-Muslim and India-Pakistan bashing, it is good that an issue like pollution takes centre stage too, even if for a few weeks a year.
However, there are serious concerns about how we describe and diagnose this problem. This might be a reason why we are not able to solve it, year after year.
While pollution is a top-priority issue, we have become irrational and emotional when it comes to recommending solutions. The first mistake we are making in dealing with this problem is our Delhi fixation. A lot of us are guilty of having a huge Delhi bias when it comes to this issue, as if children in Aligarh, Sirsa, Hapur, Moradabad and Baghpat don’t matter. If we feel charitable, we include Gurugram and Noida in the problem. Jind and Kanpur? Who are you talking about anyway?
The high presence of media, VIPs, affluent people and senior politicians means Delhi matters more than other places. However, since Delhi is a neat compartmentalised political entity, it instantly makes the issue political. It’s become BJP vs AAP, Odd-Even vs no-Odd-Even, I-care-more-than-you type of issue. It won’t lead us anywhere. Stop calling it a Delhi issue. It is a north Indian issue, even if north India is not one political entity.
The second problem is when do we actually get bothered by pollution. Scientists will tell you that you could have clear blue skies and the air could still be very polluted. I can bet that in such a situation, we will never react. What is unsettling for people is smoke, smog and haze. The particulate pollution in particular is what seems to matter to people, even though poison can be transparent. What bothers people thus is the ‘haze’, which comes every winter to the north Indian plains.
Therefore, as a matter of urgency, we need to rename this problem. From calling it ‘Delhi pollution’, we need to rechristen it the ‘north Indian haze’. While a mere renaming doesn’t do much, it matters when we sit down to solve the problem. The north Indian haze, by definition, cannot be made a single state political issue. It has to be dealt with together. And since we are talking about haze, we can go to the heart of what causes it — stubble burning.
A couple of years ago, people refused to believe that stubble burning by paddy farmers clearing their land caused the heavy pollution in Delhi. Since they never called the problem what it was — the north Indian haze — they blamed all sorts of Delhi-based things for it. Factories, cars, construction were targeted first. While these activities do cause pollution, the problem was the haze which came from stubble burning. Also, nobody bothered to check that the problem is happening in over two dozen cities in the north. Or that the problem only comes at certain times of the year and only lasts for a couple of weeks. Politics took over. Delhi screamed and clamoured every winter until literally, the winds blew the problem over.
For a country where parents obsess about their children studying science and becoming engineers and doctors, such an unscientific approach to solve such a crucial problem is appalling. We have to call a problem for what it is, and sit down and solve it. Haze is an issue in Singapore too, where Indonesian farmers burn land and clear their fields every autumn. In the exact same way as the north of India, the problem lasts a few weeks. Given international borders, the problem is far more complicated than what we have here. We can solve it, if we first diagnose it right.
Stubble burning for instance, is an easy way for Punjab farmers to clear fields. If we want them not to do it, they want to be compensated for the additional labour and machine hiring costs involved. They also want the right equipment available for hire when they want it. Maybe this is what we need to focus on. Since the issue affects so many cities, maybe the Centre can figure out a way to incentivise farmers to not resort to stubble burning.
For now, we could do this problem a huge service if we started calling it the ‘north Indian haze’. After that, we can sit with all stakeholders and find a solution that works. Let us hope sense prevails pretty soon, as does a strong breeze, which will blow over not only the north Indian haze, but also the haze of confusion in our minds.