Delhi Pollution: Embarrassing and Humiliating

The question uppermost in the mind of everyone is what is really the big deal in handling and managing the stubble without causing environmental issues.

3 mins read
A man cycles through New Delhi amid smoggy conditions in October 2019. [Photo © Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

During the last Glasgow Meet, many countries promised that they would achieve zero emissions and indicated different target dates.  India promised that it would achieve zero-emission by the year 2070, while China’s target was the year 2050.

Now, another annual climate ministerial at Sharm El-Shaik (Egypt) would take place on November 6 to 18.  During this meeting, there would be a review of progress achieved subsequent to the Glasgow Meet. During the review, it would be seen that nothing substantial has been achieved in the interim period. On the other hand, countries including India have been taking steps to expand the coal mining operation and fixing higher targets for coal utilization for use as fuel, which is a polluting fossil fuel.

With the ongoing Ukraine war, several European countries have also started increasing the coal production and utilization.

While this is the overall situation internationally, the present happenings in the capital city Delhi in India, where air quality has deteriorated to the alarming level of severe category, gives an impression that all the talk and discussions have been taking place in a vacuum, with little commitment of the concerned governments to the goal of climate protection. The pollution level has increased by around 36%, making Delhi look like a “gas chamber”.  According to the analysis by the National Clean Air  Programme tracker, the average PM 2.5 levels in October, this year was higher as compared to 2021  in the capital city of Delhi.  

 Air pollution has been caused by burning stubble in Punjab state (it is reported that there have been 3634 fires on a single day on 2nd November 2022).   Punjab has seen a 19% increase in farm fires in comparison to last year.

Stubble is the basal part of herbaceous plants and especially wheat, paddy, and cereal grasses remaining attached to the soil after harvest.

 Obviously, Punjab and Delhi governments have not been doing enough to protect the region from the negative effects of noxious gases like carbon dioxide caused by stubble burning and exposing the citizens in both states to serious health issues.

As Delhi is the capital of India and all foreign embassies are located in Delhi, the pollution level in Delhi now has received international attention and perhaps, during the forthcoming meeting in Egypt, the delegates from India have to answer many questions on Delhi’s pollution from other countries.

This would be a great embarrassment for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is a big champion of climate management and has initiated significant efforts in India to promote eco-friendly renewable energy projects, ethanol blending with petrol, promotion of e vehicles and so on.  

The question uppermost in the mind of everyone is what is really the big deal in handling and managing the stubble without causing environmental issues.

 There are plenty of things to be gained by pollution control apart from public health and profit is one of them.

Stubble is a valuable biomass and several value-added products can be produced from stubble.

By fermentation of stubble biomass, ethanol can be produced, which is a strong building block and is also extensively used for human consumption.  The government of India is now placing considerable emphasis on ethanol production, as it is targeting 20% ethanol blending with petrol to reduce emissions and also to reduce import dependence on crude oil / natural gas.

Stubble is also an important energy source, as it can be made into pellets and used as fuel. India is now facing a huge problem on the energy front, as around 80% of Indian requirements of crude oil and 50% of Indian requirements of natural gas are imported, which are largely used as fuel sources. With the skyrocketing price of crude oil and natural gas in the global market, the use of stubble as a fuel source can considerably help India in reducing its import dependence on crude oil and natural gas.

Pellets, provide much more heat and emit less particulate matter and only a fraction of the ash from burning an equivalent amount of coal.

Also, pellets constitute a reliable source of income for farmers who can sell their agriculture byproducts for making pellets, instead of merely burning them and causing pollution.  About 800 kg of pellets can replace a tonne of coal.

It is estimated about 270 million tonnes of agricultural waste is annually available in India that can produce 28,000 MW of power. By comparison, about 818 million tonnes of coal was consumed by thermal power plants for producing electricity in 2021-22, according to figures from Coal India Ltd.

Pellet making is a well-known technology and a number of pellet plants from biomass and wood chips are operating all over India, mostly in the small-scale sectors, which are operating profitably and such pellets are well used by cement and other industries as fuel.

Recently, the government of India announced a scheme to incentivize entrepreneurs to manufacture pellets from stubble.  This should have been done much earlier.  

Why such pellet projects have not been set up adequately in Punjab is a question that is arising in everyone’s mind all over India.  

Further, the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi has developed Pusa bio decomposer, which is a microbial liquid spray that decomposes stubble into manure. The bio decomposer, when sprayed onto paddy stubble, breaks it down in a way that can be easily absorbed into the soil, whereby farmers then have no need to burn the stubble.  This bio decomposer has been successfully tested for over two years. However, the Punjab government is reported to have refused to use this bio-decomposer spray for whatever reasons. This is irresponsible.

The burning of stubble and consequent huge pollution in Delhi is clearly due to the inadequate governance of the Punjab government and the Delhi government.

In a democratic country like India, it appears that even inefficient rulers can get away by offering vague excuses and shifting blame to others.


N. S. Venkataraman is a trustee with the "Nandini Voice for the Deprived," a not-for-profit organization that aims to highlight the problems of downtrodden and deprived people and support their cause and to promote probity and ethical values in private and public life and to deliberate on socio-economic issues in a dispassionate and objective manner.

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