Is India violating pollution standards?


Sultan M Hali

Autumn season in Pakistan, especially Punjab, has lost its charm of changing colours of the foliage, the respite from the sweltering heat of the summer and the preparations to welcome winter. Once upon a time, autumn season was looked forward to for organizing outdoor activities, before the harsh winter forced one to remain indoors. Now the residents of Punjab and those visiting it, dread the onset of autumn since the air is polluted with smog, leading to respiratory problems, allergies leading to wheezing, sneezing and complaints of sore throat. Environmentalists cry foul while doctors recommend confinement to indoors and the use of masks for protection. In extreme cases, schools and other educational institutions are shut down, affecting the examination schedules.
The problem has become so acute that successive governments are seeking solutions to protect the citizens, their quality of life and even to allay the concerns of environment watchdogs. In order to resolve the problem, it is essential to seek the causes of the effect. The current government has concluded that India is the culprit and the cause is stubble burning in autumn, while prevailing winds carry the smoke from the stubble fires towards Pakistan and create the thick blankets of smog. Both East and West Punjab have two growing seasons — one from May to September and the other from November to April. In May and November, Punjab farmers typically sow crops and vegetables for the next season; but before sowing, they often set fire to fields to clear stubbles of previous crop and make them suitable for next sowing.
While doubting Thomas may claim that stubble burning is carried out in western Punjab i.e. in Pakistan’s side of Punjab too so why is India being blamed. The government insists that because of a ban having been placed on stubble burning in Pakistan, the farmers on this side of the divide are complying with the ban. This viewpoint is supported by satellite imagery, which depicts the abundant bright red thermal imageries on the Indian side. Pakistan cannot be totally absolved of the criminal negligence because a few sporadic and scattered red spots being visible on the Pakistani side too. Prima facie these are negligible but cannot be condoned. The problem on the Indian side is far more acute but the people in Pakistan are suffering because of Indian carelessness. Stubble burning is carried out in spring too but during the winter months, all the toxic emissions stay trapped in the lower atmosphere and causing serious problems.
In October the provincial government of Punjab had ordered the banning of stubble burning, as well as burning other waste under Section 144 of the Code Criminal Procedure. This clause, enacted in 1898 and amended in 1997, gives the government emergency powers to prevent actions that may lead to harm or probable loss of life. On the other side of the divide, under the authority of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981, India’s Central Pollution Control Board sets national ambient air quality standards and is responsible for both testing air quality and assisting governments in planning to meet such standards. State Pollution Control Boards are permitted to set stricter standards than those in effect nationally. However, a new analysis by Greenpeace India reveals that the air pollution levels in Delhi did not drop by 25% over the past years as claimed by the Delhi government. Greenpeace India and Air visual report earlier in March this year, clearly stated Delhi to be the most polluted capital in the world. Delhi has been trapped in toxic smog and situation has further deteriorated leading to an unprecedented public health emergency being declared in Delhi and nearby areas by the pollution control body mandated by the Supreme Court. Schools in the capital have also been closed to minimize exposure of children to pollution. Under the circumstances, there is dire need for activating ‘Green Peace’ on pollution in India with consequences on Pakistan. The government must pick up the cudgel while the media must also join in the campaign to bring the pressure of the United Nations as well as other relevant environmental watch agencies to bear down upon India to take serious steps to abide by the standards set for curbing pollution.
There is another alarming development, which concerns the hacking of India’s nuclear information. Top sources in the Indian government have confirmed that the hackers were trying to access information about India’s nuclear fuel yields at the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant. India is known for its work on thorium-based reactors. Its nuclear program has deeply interlinked civilian and weapons projects. Not only did the hackers steal the sensitive information but they also placed it on the black market for interested buyers. Tragically, instead of taking punitive action to stem the rot, Indian security officials are engaged in blaming the North Koreans to be the culprit, allegedly acting as a front for the Chinese and the Pakistanis. The issue is so serious that India, which is sitting on a powder keg has endangered the entire world. It is high time that the IAEA, takes cognizance of the lapse, which will have serious repercussions for the whole world. The weak Indian nuclear command and control system is providing opportunities to not only Hindu extremists but also international rogues like the Islamic State (IS) or Daesh, with whom the Indian Security Advisor Ajit Doval has close contacts to get hold of nuclear weapons and threaten the whole world.
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.

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