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India announces new plan to help farmers stem air pollution

After another winter marred by soaring air pollution levels, India's government has announced new measures to help ta...

Posted: Feb 1, 2018 2:42 PM
Updated: Feb 1, 2018 2:42 PM

After another winter marred by soaring air pollution levels, India's government has announced new measures to help tackle the problem in the country's northern regions.

Many experts have highlighted crop burning in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana as a key cause of the pollution crisis, leading India's finance minister Arun Jaitley to use the budget, announced Thursday, to present a new subsidy for farmers aimed at curbing the practice.

Every winter, farmers in northern India burn the stubble left over after the autumn harvest in order to quickly and cheaply clear the fields in time for the next planting.

This results in Delhi, the nation's capital, and surrounding regions being overrun by a thick haze of pollution.

While the burning lasts just a few weeks, it has a significant impact, experts say.

Delhi's air quality could improve by 90% if crop burning is eliminated, according to a 2016 study by the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur.

"I think it's a crucial measure," said Chandra Venkataraman, professor of chemical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. "For a large number of the northern states, agricultural residue burning is the second most important source contributing to air pollution."

In recent years, crop burning has become a political issue.

In November 2017, the capital choked on excessive pollution. Air quality readings reached frightening levels, at one point topping the 1,000 mark on the US Embassy's air quality index. The World Health Organization considers anything above 25 to be unsafe.

That measure is based on the concentration of fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, per cubic meter. The microscopic particles, which are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, are considered particularly harmful because they are small enough to lodge deep in the lungs and pass into other organs, causing serious health risks.

At the time, the issue devolved into a political back-and-forth between Delhi's chief minister and the chief minister of Punjab and Haryana.

The solution now being offered is a subsidy for a range of machines that should remove the need for a farmer to set fire to his field. For example, one machine allows a farmer to plant seeds without having to clear his field first by tilling the soil as it plants -- preventing clogs caused by leftover rice crops.

A national and multi-factoral problem

While Delhi attracts the most attention for its intense air pollution, experts say it's a nationwide problem.

No Indian city met the World Health Organization's healthy air quality standard in 2015 or 2016, found a report by Greenpeace released Monday. The report gathered data from 280 cities across the country.

"Somehow the budget seemed to have treated the air pollution as a Delhi-NCR problem," said Anumita Roy Chowdhury Executive Director of Research and Advocacy at the Centre for Science and Environment.

"They're not considering it through a national dimension, the national scale of the air pollution crisis."

The problem is also not limited to urban areas.

Rural and urban India have roughly similar levels of exposure to air pollution, according to a comprehensive study released in January by an international team of scientists, including experts from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay and the Health Effects Institute in the US.

The study also found that the biggest source of air pollution was residential biomass burning by individuals, in other words, people burning cow dung, wood, or other materials for heating or cooking. The second was the usage of coal, mainly by industries. Crop burning was the fourth largest source and accounted for about 6% of the pollution to which people were exposed.

While crop burning is important, the government needs to focus on these major sources of pollution as well, specifically coal use and biomass burning, said E. Somanathan, an economics professor at the Indian Statistical Institute.

"The thing about air pollution is that it adds up," he said. "It doesn't make any sense that we will tackle this, but not the other. You have to tackle all the other sources. You have to act on all fronts."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 314509

Reported Deaths: 7247
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto21626259
Hinds20359415
Harrison17934309
Rankin13634278
Jackson13447246
Madison10099217
Lee9980174
Jones8381163
Forrest7683152
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Tate334084
Pike3325105
Scott315973
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Holmes189173
Clay185454
Stone182833
Tallahatchie178841
Clarke178080
Calhoun170832
Yalobusha164338
Smith162434
Walthall133945
Greene130633
Lawrence128624
Montgomery126942
Noxubee126734
Perry126338
Amite123142
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Webster114532
Jefferson Davis107133
Tunica105726
Claiborne102430
Benton99525
Humphreys96733
Kemper95828
Franklin83823
Quitman80916
Choctaw76418
Wilkinson67331
Jefferson65728
Sharkey50217
Issaquena1686
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 532895

Reported Deaths: 11001
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson771431528
Mobile41089808
Madison34837505
Tuscaloosa25810454
Montgomery24355588
Shelby23730249
Baldwin21191309
Lee15892171
Calhoun14522316
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Jackson6815112
Blount6694137
Colbert6310134
Coffee5524119
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Russell443238
Chilton4308112
Franklin426282
Covington4136118
Tallapoosa4039152
Escambia393977
Chambers3578123
Dallas3557152
Clarke351161
Marion3130101
Pike311377
Lawrence300798
Winston275673
Bibb261564
Geneva251477
Marengo249664
Pickens234761
Barbour231756
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Butler216469
Fayette212562
Henry189044
Cherokee184745
Randolph181742
Monroe178040
Washington167639
Macon159950
Clay156857
Crenshaw152757
Cleburne149141
Lamar142935
Lowndes139053
Wilcox127130
Bullock122841
Conecuh110629
Coosa107928
Perry107826
Sumter104832
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