Pollution levels in Delhi prompt Diwali exodus
The annual ritual of setting off firecrackers, added to smoke caused by farmers burning stubble at harvest time, causes choking levels of smog in India's capital city during the Diwali festival. Those who can opt to escape the city, Amy Kazmin, the FT's South Asia bureau chief, tells Jyotsna Singh
Presented by Jyotsna Singh and produced by Jyotsna Singh and Fiona Symon
For the Financial Times in Delhi, this is FT News, and I'm Jyotsna Singh.
New Delhi, India's capital city, has been famous for its glorious winters, a time of festivities and delicious seasonal food. But in recent years, the city has also acquired an unwanted accolade as one of the world's most polluted cities, with its air dirtier than the air in Beijing. To discuss Delhi's severe air pollution crisis, I'm joined by the FT's South Asia Bureau Chief, Amy Kazmin.
Amy, it's that time of the year we in Delhi have begun to dread. Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, is around the corner. And you, like many others, are planning an escape from the city. Why?
Because Diwali basically ushers in conditions that can only be described as apocalyptic. The festival of lights in the last few decades has come to be celebrated by virtually every family in the city lighting off firecrackers. And the combined result of 22 million people or their families all setting off boxes and boxes of firecrackers in the name of a good time essentially just causes a horrific spike in air pollution that lingers not just that night but for days afterwards.
Unfortunately, Diwali coincides with the change of the weather. So during the summer, when it's very hot, the pollution isn't as bad, or it's able to disperse. And in the monsoon, there's lots of wind and rain, which helps keeps the air clean. But Diwali ushers in the beginning of winter, so the temperatures cool down and there's an inversion layer. So all the pollutants that are already circulating in the environment are held much closer to the ground, and the air quality is much worse.
Add into this the combined impact of so many firecrackers, and it really is unbelievable. I have made it basically a practise that, yes, we literally evacuate the city. I have a young daughter, and I do not want her to be exposed to this. Last year, we also left the city. We came back. It was five to seven days later. And my heart sunk as our train moved closer to Delhi. We'd been in the Himalayas with beautiful, blue air. And I started to feel nauseous as we got closer to the city because there was just this pall of grey. And when we finally reached into Delhi, it was so hazy with smoke you could hardly see 100 feet in front of you. I've really never seen anything like that.
So I can only imagine that this is what like London might have been in the Industrial Revolution. And we went home, and we barely left the house for days. Finally, after a few days, it cleared up a bit. But anyway, from now on, it's like a practise for me and many, many of my friends, including Indians, to essentially evacuate because they just don't want to expose themselves to that.
One of the main contributors to the winter spike in Delhi's air pollution is believed to be the burning of crop waste by farmers across North India. Tell us about that.
Basically, New Delhi is located next to two very prosperous agricultural states, Punjab and Haryana, which are like the traditional breadbaskets of India. In the last two to three decades, rice acreage in these two states has also increased very, very sharply. These were not traditional rice-growing areas. But, starting in about the mid '80s, rice planting really, really increased. So they plant a summer crop right before the onset of the monsoon rains so they can capture all that monsoon water and grow their paddy.
In October, it's the harvest season, and then there's a very short window that farmers have before they harvest the crop and then clear their land and sow the next crop. Typically, farmers who grow rice in the monsoon season use the same land to grow either potatoes or wheat afterwards. But the window of time that they have to clear their fields after the harvest is very, very short, about a week. And the cheapest and easiest way for them to clear their fields is just to burn the crop residues.
Punjab and Haryana have seen large-scale mechanisation of agriculture. In the old days, the crop was cut down by hand and then the rice would be threshed out of it. And all that crop straw could be used for animal fodder. It had a value. But a few things have changed in the last 30 years. Number one, the amount of rice acreage has increased. Number two, there is mechanisation of agriculture. These are very rich areas, and people are not using labourers anymore. Many of them are using big combine harvesters, which just go through the fields and separate the rice and leave the straw behind on the field.
The other thing is that new hybrid rice varieties have very, very tough straw. Basmati rice straw is still in demand as fodder for livestock, but this tough hybrid rice straw isn't very digestible to the animals. There's really nothing to do with it. So people just burn it. And because it's such a huge amount of acreage, around 9 million acres in North India of rice being cleared in one fell swoop, it's a huge amount of burning and a huge amount of particulate matter that's released in the air. And unfortunately, it's all blown towards Delhi.
Pollution, of course, has become an increasingly important political issue in Delhi. The city's educated middle class has really started agitating about the bad quality of the city's air. They've gone to court to demand policy changes. And the National Green Tribunal, which is kind of like an environmental court, actually ordered a ban on all burning in Punjab and Haryana.
Before we move on any further, let's first hear what the farmers have to say.
This is what we've always done. We grow our crop, and after harvesting we set fire to the waste. We put out the fire and clear out the fields and then sow another seed. But this time, the government has put up a stumbling block, saying we can't do this anymore. Now what to do? Where shall we go? There's nowhere to throw this, no transport. I don't have any money to spare, and I can't do anything else with the waste.
Here, for the last three days, two tractors have been operating in the fields, but not much has been accomplished. The straw is still there. We need to keep checking for the straw to clear. And if you do that, the labor cost goes up. This giant machine is just a big piece of waste iron. It's useless.
The government has warned of tough action against those defying the ban, but it looks like most people can't comply. What other measures has the government taken to tackle the problem?
The government is threatening a lot of penal action against farmers that defy the ban. They're threatening that they'll put farmers in gaol. They're threatening that they'll disconnect their power connections, which they use to irrigate their fields. Maybe they'll try to make an example of one or two farmers, but I think that, despite all the threats, I'd be surprised if they really came down so hard on all these farmers. Because, the reality is alternatives haven't yet been made available.
There are technical solutions. There are machines that are now on the market which can cut the rice straw into small little bits, and experts say that this can be left on top of the soil as a layer of mulch. But there's a very strong resistance to this by the farmers because the traditional belief here in this part of India is that the field needs to be completely cleaned. There needs to be no crop waste left on top of it. Otherwise, the next crop won't come in well.
Some larger farmers that have the money and can afford these machines have started to buy mulchers and are testing them out for the first time this year. Small farmers maybe can't afford them, but everyone is going to watch how these big farmers do. If this whole process works out, then what we can hope is that other farmers will slowly be willing to change their practises and adopt more eco-friendly means of dealing with this problem of crop waste.
Unless something is done to help farmers find an affordable alternative to burning crop waste, Delhi's smog-filled winters look set to continue at great cost to public health and to India's reputation. Thanks, Amy.