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Toxic Air Is A Reflection Of India’s Poor Research Culture

Indira Gandhi International airport Delhi had to delay several of its flights and many got cancelled due to severe fog conditions”. This is a kind of headline we expect in winters. And now the new trend of headlines are like “Delhi chokes as the air quality falls to hazardous levels” (recently carried by Al Jazeera).

Over the years, Delhi has become a symbol of pollution. Being a cricket enthusiast, I remember how Delhi’s smog apparently came to rescue for the Sri Lankan players when they were getting clobbered by the Indian batsmen during a Test Match last winters. While most ex-India players were fuming at the decision of halting the test match, the reports however suggested that it was wise, as the air pollution level in Delhi on that day was 15 times the toxicity maximum set by the WHO. This winter it is no different as Delhi witnessed the season’s worst air quality on October 28. It continues to deteriorate further.

Like the past many winters, the northern plains of India remain most affected by the smog menace. The worst affected is India’s National Capital Region (NCR), which comprises of the Delhi and its adjoining parts. Every year, air quality takes a dip bad to worse, making it a health emergency. Pollution levels in the region are high round the year but as the temperatures dropping, it rises to the alarming levels. Of course there are a mixture of factors to blame, but every winter the fingers are pointed towards the neighbouring states of Haryana and Punjab. Now what do they do to add to the already menacing situation to make it worse? Agriculture is apparently the reason. The two states of Haryana and Punjab known for their agriculture, the two top wheat and rice producing states of India have to face the brunt of being responsible for NCR’s deteriorating air quality when they burn the stubble in their fields.

In India there are mainly two cropping seasons called Rabi (in which the sowing takes place between October and November, harvested between April and May) and Kharif (between May and July, harvest from September to October. Now rice (paddy) is a Kharif crop and wheat a Rabi crop. The problem lies in the transition period from Kharif to Rabi season. The newly harvested Kharif crop leaves stubble in the fields; the same fields are to be made ready for Rabi crop hence requires the stubble to be cleared off the field. Now this can be done in two ways either by using the traditional way of incorporating stubble into the soil or by burning the stubble. The method of incorporation is costly as well as time-consuming, so obviously the farmers choose burning as an alternative. The burning takes place at a very large scale, releasing toxic gases and particulate matter into the atmosphere, thus raising the pollution levels.

Aggravated levels of pollution is not limited to India. It has engulfed the whole world, whether it be the London smog of 1952, which killed thousands, or more recently in China. But apparently the reasons behind such situations in both the places seem similar—burning coal as a fuel for heavy industries like steel. However, after the reasons were revealed, both countries took steps, at least on paper, that led to some kind of relief.

It is not as if India’s industries do not use coal as fuel. But every winter. industries using coal as fuel are not blamed—instead, easy targets are made. Farmers are seen as the culprits. People start asking the wrong questions. TV debate experts want farmers to stop, and, interestingly, so do the politicians. What are the options for those farmers who toil day in and day out for small profits if they stop burning stubble? Nothing but loss, debt, and finally suicide. A vicious cycle. Instead of giving the farmers good options, you can’t straight away ban the practice.

But where will such options come from? That is where research is important. There should have been a voluntary response from research institutes all over India to devise some kind of solution for farmers; something to destroy stubble without affecting soil quality? This should have been the priority because people’s health is affected. But India and its research facilities have failed to do so. Interestingly the smog menace is in a place which houses one of India’s premier tech schools, IIT Delhi, and premier medical research facility AIIMS. But apparently the former is meant to mint engineers who work in banks and data filling jobs, and do everything but engineering, and the later mistreats poor and ailing patients, giving them appointments that sometimes stretch for months from the date of registration. Research in India’s premier institutes has taken a back seat.

Who is to be blame? The institutes can’t be blamed, because either they do not have the infrastructure, or the ones that do are helpless, because no one wants to pursue research. This happens when an educational institute or a research institute is judged and ranked by the amount of the average ‘package’ the students receive from MNCs after graduating. Should that be the only index of success? I do not remember in recent times, any breathtaking research taking place at these institutes. Those who could have, and should have, contributed are either doing clerical jobs just for the sake of better compensation or doing some research in foreign countries.

That over 80% of recent engineering graduates in India are not employable shouldn’t be shocking, because the 80% mentioned were never interested in engineering, only that engineers are well paid. This made room for lot of private engineering colleges setting up their business of manufacturing namesake engineers. Although there are a lot of excellent private engineering colleges as well, they are scarce. Hence the future of research seems bleak unless some very concrete steps are taken.

People need to understand and press the authorities for the same. We need a robust, research-oriented culture if the potential of engineering and other professions is to be realised fully. We need to ask questions, the right questions to the right people, and not be manipulated into thinking that nothing can be done. As for the research institutes, they need to come out of their rusty habits, develop something indigenous, encourage students towards research and provide solutions to real world problems.

You must be to comment.
  1. Pratyusha Banerjee

    Finally an article on this aspect and perfectly logical. Engineering for just the sake of mere employment and not for the true drive behind it is still the biggest challenge in the technological sector of India.

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