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“This week India’s capital city, Delhi has been hit with extreme air pollution – so extreme that the city’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal described it as a gas chamber.  The city’s Air Quality Index has been in the range of 700 to 1,000; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers anything over 300 to be hazardous. The index measures the concentration of particulate matter, microscopic particles that can harm the lungs, causing cancer, exacerbating asthma, and damaging organs.

“In response, the city is taking extreme measures. On Tuesday, the Delhi government closed schools for the week. The National Green Tribunal has banned construction, one source of particulate pollution, in the region through November 14; truck and car travel has also been limited.

“Why this spike in pollution? There are two answers. The simplest is the physical answer: Farmers in the neighboring states are burning straw from their last rice crop to clear fields for planting the wheat crop. The more complicated is the political answer: Politicians are wary of trying to prevent crop burning lest they antagonize the powerful farm lobby, lose electoral support and set off political turmoil among regional and ethnic interests.

What’s causing the smog?

“It’s true that construction and vehicle use degrade the National Capital Region’s air quality. But the real problem  comes from beyond  its territory. In the nearby states of Punjab, Haryana, and to some extent Western Uttar Pradesh, farmers have about three weeks to  clear their fields of paddy straw in the fall so that they can plant wheat, their winter crop. The state of Punjab alone produces about 20 million tons of paddy straw. Roughly 85 to 90 percent of that is burnt in the field.

“There are alternatives. For instance, farmers could convert straw into such economically useful resources as bio pellets. But farmers still find it more cost effective to burn it. Just now, northern India is enduring a temperature inversion, which has trapped air in the region – and concentrated all that particulate smoke in Delhi’s atmosphere.

Shouldn’t democracy, affluence, or social norms make it easier to fix this?

“Scholars have suggested that democracies tend to have less pollution, because citizens seek a clean environment and governments are responsive to citizens’  wishes in well-functioning democracies. But India is a well-functioning democracy, and Delhi elections are competitive. Scholars also note that rich and affluent areas of countries experience less pollution. But Delhi has the highest per capita income in the country. Scholars also suggest that countries’ environmental policies reflect international norms and agreements. India vocally supports the Paris Agreement and has outlined aggressive targets for renewable energy in its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution.Clearly democracy, affluence, and global norms are not helping Delhi get rid of its air pollution. So what’s the problem?…” The Washington Post. Read the full opinion piece by authors Aseem Prakash, Nives Dolšak, Thomas Bernauer and Liam McGrath on

Delhi is blanketed with toxic smog. This is why.