A lesson from reporting on pollution

Knowledge is often least accessible to those who need it most

November 15, 2019 12:15 am | Updated 12:41 am IST

Commuters drive under heavy smog conditions in New Delhi on November 14, 2019.

Commuters drive under heavy smog conditions in New Delhi on November 14, 2019.

It has been happening for more than a decade now. During this season, smoke from the fields of Haryana and Punjab, where farmers set fire to rice stubble, combines with Delhi’s local sources of pollution to worsen the air quality. Research shows that the contribution of stubble burning to Delhi’s pollution is, at worst, 25%-40%. The rest is contributed by local industries, vehicles, power plants, and construction dust generated in the National Capital Region. Yet stubble burning makes for high-decibel ‘conflict’ reporting: Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party government blames Punjab and Haryana for the mess, while the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre blames the Delhi government for not doing enough.

Last year, the Union Environment Ministry took some reporters from Delhi to Punjab, to showcase steps taken to discourage farmers from burning stubble. They had adopted a stick and carrot approach: steep fines had been imposed on farmers burning stubble, and farmer cooperatives had been given heavily subsidised machines that cut, sorted and sometimes buried the straw in their fields. The trouble was that the machines were still too expensive. We spoke to many farmers. Some said they had stopped burning stubble, some complained of the difficulties in accessing these machines, some said they had seen value in the chaff and were selling briquettes of them to bio-ethanol power plants.

On our way back, some television reporters, who had been expecting visuals of burning fields, were disappointed. The skies were blue and there were no smoke plumes. Ergo, zero footage. Finally — and to the annoyance of one of the Environment Ministry officials with us — we saw a dark cloud of smoke. We drove to the field. There we saw a man with a flaming torch setting fire to his rice field. “Who are you? Why are you doing this? Don’t you know this is illegal?” He was met with an avalanche of questions from us and photographed. His field was suddenly on camera. “This is not my land. I’m just following my master’s instructions,” the man from Bihar said.

At this point, an official from the local pollution control board whispered to us that “it would be best to head back to the bus as things could turn violent”. But within minutes came the ‘master’, a burly Sikh farmer, accompanied by burlier acolytes. The questions we had posed earlier came back to us: “Who are you? Why are you here? Oh, from Delhi!” What followed was an instructive half-hour. We were told that subsidised machines were available only to a few farmers. He explained the economics of farming, how the unavailability of labour made it hard for farmers to switch from burning fields to other methods of disposing stubble. Many farmers couldn’t be convinced that it was possible for pollutants to travel hundreds of kilometres to Delhi while their own skies were blue. And how did people in Delhi know that pollutants from Punjab were affecting them and that Delhi itself was not the culprit?

That was three years ago when I hadn’t yet understood how air quality sensors worked. I learnt about this because of my privilege of being a journalist — the job gives me access to authorities, scientists, and detailed explainers on the Internet. Paradoxically, knowledge is often least accessible to those who need it most.

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