Top ministers of the Union and the Delhi governments traded blame on Thursday as the city’s air quality slipped into the “very poor” category, a stark replay of how the crisis has unfolded in recent years when close to 30 million people are exposed to hazardous levels of pollution in the run-up to the winter.
Delhi’s average air quality index (AQI) for the 24 hours till 4pm on Thursday was at 312, according to government data, a level not seen since February. Air quality was similar in Gurugram (311), and slightly worse in Noida (321) and Ghaziabad (322).
One of two monitoring stations in Greater Noida recorded an AQI of 400, which is on the cusp of the “severe” category – the highest of the five-point scale for air pollution.
Thursday’s spat, which later also included comments from Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, began with Union minister of environment, forest and climate change, Prakash Javadekar, saying that only 4% of Delhi’s air pollution is due to farm fires in the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana.
“Stubble burning is contributing to only 4% load now, 96% of the load (pollution load of Delhi) is from local factors such as biomass burning, unpaved roads, dust, construction and demolition waste. CPCB teams will monitor these local factors and submit reports to concerned authorities immediately,” he said.
The stand, however, was criticised by Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. “Staying in denial will not help. If stubble burning causes only 4% pollution, why has pollution suddenly increased over the last fortnight? Air was clean before that. It’s the same story every year. There’s no massive jump in any local source of pollution in Delhi in last few days to cause this spike,” Kejriwal said.
The CM added: “Let’s accept that stubble burning causes huge pollution every year in north India during this time. And let’s all get together to find a solution sincerely. Blame game and politics hasn’t helped anyone. People are suffering. I’m extremely worried that pollution will play havoc coupled with Covid-19.”
Javadekar responded to these with tweets of his own: “My statement today on air pollution in Delhi has been misinterpreted by a section of the media. Let me clarify, the figures of 4% share of stubble burning in AQI in Delhi pertained to this week. It varies from 4 to 40% during peak stubble burning.”
The environment ministry, too, tweeted out the clarification.
“At the same time let us not be in denial that there are several local factors — vehicular pollution, non-agricultural biomass burning, dust, geographical and meteorological — that are primarily responsible for high air pollution during winters in Delhi,” Javadekar said later.
The exchange did not stop there. Delhi’s environment minister Gopal Rai accused the central government of meting out “partial” treatment towards Delhi.
He said the BJP was acting as a “mouthpiece” for other states where polluting activities such as stubble burning were ongoing, and diesel generator sets and polluting thermal power plants were continuing to operate without any checks.
“The Grap (winter segment of the Graded Response Action Plan) was to be implemented from today (Thursday) and Delhi was the first state to have taken out an order to strictly comply with the diesel genset ban. However, the Haryana government has been writing letters asking for exemptions. The governments of neighbouring states have also asked for an extension of deadlines for thermal power plants to install air pollution control equipment. Why should they be given any extensions?” he said.
Later in Chandigarh, the Punjab CM said: “In fact, it is Kejriwal who is in denial”. “The fact is that there is absolutely not data to support the claims of the Delhi chief minister,” he added.
Similar exchanges took place last year. On November 1, Javadekar accused Kejriwal of “politicising pollution” after the Delhi CM criticised the Centre for not doing enough on reducing farm fires. Kejriwal had then asked students in Delhi schools to write to chief ministers in Haryana and Punjab to crack down on crop residue burning.
Farm fires have been a persistent source of winter pollution for the National Capital Region and large parts of north India. Farmers in Punjab and Haryana set fire to paddy stubble left behind after harvesting, a practice that helps them to turn their fields around for sowing winter crops quickly and economically.
“Only 50% of harvesting is complete till now. Harvesting and clearing the fields will take another 10 to 15 days. The use of straw management machinery is not very successful because all farmers cannot afford it and some stubble still remains which has to be cleared manually. The government should accept the Supreme Court’s suggestion and pay ₹100 per quintal to all farmers and then act on farmers who still burn stubble,” said Dharmendra Kumar, spokesperson, Bharatiya Kisan Union.
Last year, there were 55,210 fire points in Punjab and in 2018 there were 50,590 fire points in the state. Since mid-September this year, according to data from American space agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), there have been 5,733 incidents of fire observed in Punjab and Haryana. This number is more than double the 2,761 seen in the same period last year and 1,937 observed in 2018.