Friday, 16 Nov 2018

Killer Delhi Air is a disguised water crisis

This is the time of year when pollution in the Indian capital becomes unbearable, courts shocking citizens by banning Diwali's firecrackers and environmental authorities threaten to take drastic measures such as banning cars.

It is also the season of criticism of the practice of burning crop residues in the neighboring states of New Delhi, Punjab and Haryana, when soot was blowing towards the city. Scientists estimate that Monday, one-third of the harmful particle overload in the Delhi National Capital Region is a thinner element than a fraction of human hair, derived from thatching.

Including the capital region, India is home to nine of the ten most polluted cities in the world. Beyond the health risks, the smog crisis threatens to undermine competitiveness at a time when the country is beginning to boast of rapidly improving its ease of work ranking.

Regardless of the efforts of the authorities to discourage private vehicles, shut down coal-fired power plants or curb construction and heavy industry, the air quality in Delhi has no chance as long as 30 million tons of paddy thatch are in flames between 15 and 20 days. In late October and early November, pollution alternates between very serious and severe.

The problem is usually identified as expensive technology and a scarce labor force: Mechanized harvesters generate a large volume of stubble and straw. This product is useless for feeding livestock, but if it is not treated, it uses nitrogen in the field and reduces the yields of the next crop, wheat.

A $ 1,900 Happy Seeder that plants wheat by mulching paddy stubble is not profitable for small farmers. Collecting the residue is also problematic. The prosperous Punjab rural labor force is increasingly made up of returning migrants to celebrate Diwali. Burning waste seems to be the most logical solution for farmers, even if the villagers themselves are burned by pollution.

It was only in the 2000s that we realized the gravity of the water crisis in full swing. Since 2008, the Punjab government has delayed planting rice by setting a mandatory start date. This year, it has been postponed an additional five days to June 20 in order to save 2.4 trillion liters of water. But later, paddy seedlings imply even stronger pressure after harvest to clear the fields of wheat, making Delhi's air pollution from October to November even more concentrated and ruining the Diwali celebrations.

In other words, the air pollution in Delhi is at least partly a disguised water crisis. Removing rice from Punjab farmers would be almost impossible, and given the primacy of food security, politicians will not even try seriously. But it is time to recognize that unmannered measures, such as forced delays in planting, have environmental and economic costs that must also be weighed.

To contact the author of this story: Andy Mukherjee at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Sillitoe at

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andy Mukherjee is a Bloomberg Opinion editorialist who covers industrial companies and financial services. He was previously a columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He has also worked for the Straits Times, ET NOW and Bloomberg News.

© 2018 Bloomberg L.P.


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