Students Demand End to Air Pollution in Delhi

DELHI students from various universities of DU, JNU, Ambedkar University and Jamia Millia Islamia formed a Human Chain at Central Park, Connaught Place registering their protest against government's inability to handle the rising pollution level in Delhi. The students attacked the Modi government as well as Delhi Government for their inadequate measures to counter the health emergency.

Delhi has been witnessing its worst winters with heavy smog and pollution threatening people’s right to breathe from past three years. The trend has continued this year with the toxicity crossing all limits. Air pollution and any climate extremity is nothing but a class war. The poor and marginalised who are not responsible for contributing to climate degradation and disruption are affected the most. The rich and privileged who can afford masks and air purifiers are shielding themselves from the adverse effects, while the poor are condemned to death.

However, the tragedy doesn’t stop here. The corporate media which has a vested interest in ensuring that the climate disruption doesn’t turn into a political movement, has from time to time, created fictional enemies for the public and let the actual emitters go scot-free. In Delhi nearly 40% of emissions are contributed by vehicles, 18% by industries and nearly 20% by construction. All these emissions are contributed year long, yet there is no debate or any intervention by the Supreme Court seeking accountability and action from governments to control it. Note: only 15-20% of Delhi’s population own a car or a four-wheeler.

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In these circumstances is it justified to solely put the blame on stubble burning by farmers which contributes nearly 10% to emissions and is seasonal, not perennial? It’s even more interesting that this current mess of stubble burning is directly related to green revolution and the present farming crisis in Punjab and Haryana along with Western UP. (Moreover, this problem was precipitated to its present scale by the Punjab and Haryana governments who enacted a law in 2009 forcing farmers to delay paddy sowing by nearly a month to ‘conserve’ underground water. This eventually resulted in accumulation of smog and suffocating pollution in Delhi in the month of November. Earlier farmers in Punjab/Haryana had a longer time span to dispose off their stubble and winds too to have a different direction in September/October that used to take away more of the stubble burning smoke away from the national capital! The Apex court is now solely punishing farmers for something they are not responsible.)

Due to the green revolution and the push for mechanisation, farmers adopted technologies that reduced work-force use in farms. This additionally pushed the existing labour force to migrate to industries and other areas in search of work. The harvester machine that cuts the crop and reduces the time for harvesting wheat and other crop, does not uproot the whole crop from the soil thereby leaving nearly one foot tall crop residue. Farmers in order to sow fresh crop need to remove this from soil before planting the rabi crop – and they are on a tight deadline, since the planting must not be delayed. This is why they burn the stubble, for lack of an alternative. Lack of work force available with increasing cost of labour adds misery to farmer’s revenue that has already seen a constant downfall for the past decade and half.

Unfortunately, rather than being sensitive towards the issue of farmers and understanding the actual causes, the Supreme Court has imposed a draconian ban on stubble burning, warning farmers of severe punishment if they violate the ban. Following orders by the SC and National Green Tribunal, at least 1000 farmers were fined by Punjab and Haryana government since 2017. Remember, court orders in Shiela Dixit’s tenure forced buses and other vehicles in Delhi to shift to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). Now, however, the courts are ignoring the actual polluters and are criminalising farmers: who are already battling severe agrarian distress. 

Remember, stubble burning is not the sole seasonal contributor to Delhi’s pollution. Firecrackers during Diwali also make the situation worse. But Hindu-majoritarian politicians who encourage people to violate the ban on firecrackers do not face the draconian consequences that farmers who burn stubble face.

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The All India Students’ Association (AISA) demanded a holistic yet urgent response which does not criminalise farmers. The students’ demands included:

  1. Free Delhi Metro for an entire month to control vehicular pollution during a climate emergency. This helps the poor who don’t have any other avenue to travel and also motivates car owners to leave their vehicles to control pollution and travel in public transport.
  2. Increase the number of DTC CNG buses to at least 10,000 to control private vehicular movement. Integrated transport solutions including metro and DTC buses to provide last mile connectivity helps people to choose public transport over pollution-causing private vehicles. BJP leaders are condemnable for defying the odd-even scheme. But the odd-even scheme is a small and inadequate step – there is no alternative to expanded and affordable public transport.
  3. Enforce a moratorium on all construction activities and running of diesel generators for one month. Guarantee compensation to workers and ensure no job loss. It should be mandatory for all workers to be compensated for the wage loss due to suspension of work as they are in no place to be blamed.
  4. Set up solar panels in place of existing thermal polluting power plants. It is important to start compost pits and give subsidy for farmers to employ workers or machines to remove the residue crop and convert it into manure which in turn can be used to minimise poisonous fertilizers.
  5. Enforce compliance of pollution standards for Industries. Industries contribute 30% of total Air Pollution in Delhi.
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It is sad that every year at this time the pollution levels in Delhi gets serious but there's no seriousness from the governments’ side to combat this. What we see are blame-games between the central and the state governments. Pollution is a political issue and it must be addressed at that level. The political parties must show political will to address it. Pollution must be on the agenda of the forthcoming Assembly Elections in Delhi.

The Delhi Air Quality Index has surpassed 400 this year (for perspective, remember that  Bloomington in USA has an AQI of merely 19)! Delhi has turned into a gas chamber killing all of us slowly but surely. Young children in Delhi are developing respiratory diseases and cancer. When will this end? The solution is clean air and this can only be achieved by system change not change within the system. Because the present economic and consumption model is responsible for the present crisis, there needs to be a systemic change. Only then can the poor, who cannot buy masks and air purifiers and cannot opt to stay indoors, actually breathe clean air.

- N Sai Balaji