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View: No gimmicks, only decisive steps can tackle air pollution

The fight against pollution has to be along-term battle with targets, penalties and incentives. No authority — executive, political or judicial — should think of becoming a green messiah via a landmark order. In this context, the Supreme Court ban...

, ET Bureau|
Nov 06, 2019, 11.13 PM IST
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Air-Pollution---BCCL
The current outcry of citizens and the Supreme Court’s intervention provide a golden opportunity for specialists and activists to put their best foot forward.
On Monday, stern words from the Supreme Court against air pollution came as a breath of fresh air for people in north India. This hopefully marks the start of a genuine war against pollution, which has so far seen only political gimmicks, rash unscientific orders and one-upmanship without any drive to clean the air.

The fight against pollution has to be along-term battle with targets, penalties and incentives. No authority — executive, political or judicial — should think of becoming a green messiah via a landmark order. In this context, the Supreme Court banning the burning of crop residue in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh is sensible.

The road ahead is bumpy, though. The first challenge comes from farm leaders, who have openly stated that they have no choice but to burn the harvest residue. The second challenge is how to fund these initiatives, particularly when the battle for clean air in Delhi is being perceived by many in the hinterland as an ugly contest between Lutyens’ Delhi and the humble farmer.

Farmers make a simple point: privileged people, whose small families have 2-3 cars, emit tonnes of toxins throughout the year, but they want farmers, whose fields oxygenate the air for months, to pay for heavy-duty machinery, or to hire costly labour just because they burn waste for a couple of weeks. Therefore, somebody has to fund the alternatives to farm fires.

Farmers want authorities to reimburse them for the cost of clean alternatives to combustion. For them, burning is the quick, economically viable option. In this, they are being as logical as the Delhi government, whose ‘odd-even’ scheme is blind to trucks and smaller commercial vehicles, which are often much more polluting but vital to the economy.

To end farm fires, a detailed assessment of the machinery and budget required to clear the fields without setting them ablaze should first be made. Also, authorities should quickly assess the viability of projects to make paper, animal feed or to generate electricity from the waste, which will create jobs and income.

Next, a consensus is needed on who will foot the bill for these initiatives. GoI, which wants to double farmer income by 2022, will shudder to load the cost on the very folks whose votes matter a lot, particularly in the agrarian areas of Punjab and Haryana. Without aconsensus, it would be politically suicidal for any state government to implement the Supreme Court’s order.

Eventually, one way or the other, people with more money than affected farmers will have to foot the bill, either with some surcharge, or indirectly, through taxes to fund subsidies on equipment or higher support prices for farm produce. No political party or state government can risk being seen as ‘anti-farmer’.

The other important step would be to trust scientists more than politicians in the strategy to clean the air. The odd-even scheme is a glaring example of a political gimmick, which is also a slap on the face of scientific research based on hard data. Scientists will tell you that Delhi’s air became cleaner on Monday because of favourable meteorological conditions. But Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has already declared that his odd-even scheme — ‘and other reasons’ — worked wonders. It is heartening that the Supreme Court has asked the Delhi government to present data on the impact of restrictions on private cars. This is a huge improvement from the time when somebody in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) rejected a study by saying, ‘So what if it is a study by IIT!’

With the Supreme Court moving decisively to steer the battle against air pollution, activists and specialists need to present a strong case. This must include an assessment of various causes of pollution, such as the existence of extremely congested and filthy wholesale markets in the middle of the city, which attract trucks and smaller commercial vehicles on roads that are so dirty that even riding a bicycle, or pulling a loaded cart, can contaminate the air with grime.

The current outcry of citizens and the Supreme Court’s intervention provide a golden opportunity for specialists and activists to put their best foot forward. They need to present facts and data to the top judiciary and seek acomprehensive order that shall be the law of the land. The order should override gimmicks born out of politics, or the temptation to be seen to be striving for a noble goal without upsetting economic or electoral apple-carts.

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