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Rescue plan for the 'Haze Capital'

Indians are probably getting too used to pollution!

In a recent paper titled "The effect of pollution on crime: Evidence from data on particulate matter and ozone" by Burkhardt et al in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, the authors show something startling! For the first time, this study showed the effect of short-term air pollution exposure (PM 2.5 and ozone) on several categories of crime, with a particular emphasis on aggressive behaviour.

Breeding crime?

Interestingly, the study finds that increased air pollution has a positive effect on violent crimes, specifically assaults! The dataset spans around 397 counties in the US and, therefore, represents a sizeable component of the US population.

Does this really ring a bell for Indian cities? Of course, in many cases we have argued that results from the developed world cannot be extrapolated to Indian conditions.

In this case, however, it should be noted that we, the Indians, are probably getting too used to pollution! The seasonal spike in pollution in the national capital region (NCR) and Delhi, which should now be appropriately described as the 'haze capital', is now an annual affair!

Can this really lead to a spike in violent crimes? This remains a working hypothesis: In NCR, which has been reporting one of the worst air qualities and high crime rates, is there a causal relation between these two 'evils' (as opposed to 'goods' that are assumed to increase human benefits as defined in neoclassical economics)?

NCR probably stands as the biggest example across the world on the 'worst' practices that need to be followed for urban environment management.

The May 2018 report by The Air-Weather-Climate (AWC) Research Group shows pollution in NCR apportioned by source. It refutes the claim that agricultural stubble burning is the prime cause of increase in primary particulate matter (PPM) in the air.

The contribution of the agriculture sector is very low (~16 ìg/m3) in the total PM 2.5 during winters, as the bulk is contributed by residential (~80 ìg/m3) and industrial (~70 ìg/m3) sectors.

However, as per a recent analysis conducted by Sayanangshu Modak of ORF, with the bulk of the stubble burning taking place within a span of 15-20 days, the short-term spike in PPM levels gets attributed to the agricultural sector. This happens largely during the interim period between kharif and rabi seasons.

A week after Diwali, Delhi-NCR looked like this. (Photo: Reuters)

This was noted in a recent research published in Nature Sustainability. The attempt to conserve groundwater has led the Punjab and Haryana governments to delay the kharif sowing season in June by weeks, which leads to harvesting by October-November.

This leaves less time to prepare the field for rabi wheat and, therefore, the traditional practice of stubble burning that was phased out over months is reduced and concentrated to short period of time.

What's to blame?

Does this take away the fact that pollution levels over the last few years have shown a serious spike especially immediately after Diwali?

Now, the question is who or what is responsible for Delhi-NCR's unbearable air quality? The stubble burning or the festival? We need a more targeted source apportionment study to consider the time span of the spike.

There is no harm in reiterating that the cost of air pollution is huge for Delhi! The pollution cost imposed on the nation is to the tune of 8.5 per cent of the country's GDP in 2013 because of the cost imposed by labour-day losses and increased social costs, as per a World Bank study.

Meanwhile, an IIT Bombay study found that air pollution imposed a cost equivalent to 0.71 per cent of India's GDP on Mumbai and Delhi in 2015. Delhi has failed in its endeavours to manage pollution over many years.

Where's the data?

It ranks third among 23 states in the achievement of terms of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), according to an ORF study, which develops a comprehensive SDG index that is also claimed to be an indicator for ease of doing business. Delhi's rank on SDG13, related to climate action, is 22.

So, if Delhi's score was any better on air pollution - which has 39 per cent weightage on the SDG 13 index and 3 per cent weightage overall - its ease of doing business would have been even better.

The national capital needs a more comprehensive approach than a piecemeal one like the Odd-Even Rule. Earlier, I have written in this space about the low utility of this approach, as it excludes commercial vehicles from the traffic management scheme.

The Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) implemented in Delhi is largely influenced by Beijing's experience. It needs to be noted here that GRAP's success in Beijing essentially entailed pre-emptive preventive measures, rather than reactive measures, as is the case with Delhi.

Delhi must determine sources of pollution in the period of spike before devising a comprehensive plan that entails interventions in agriculture through crop diversification, use of polluter's pay principle, regulations and phasing out of peak traffic hours.

The steps taken by the government are neither preemptive, nor planned. They are knee-jerk and ad-hoc.

(The writer is Director, ORF Kolkata.)

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: Don't breathe. Baaki sab first class hai

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