A woman wearing a face mask walks in heavy smog in Harbin, northeast China's Heilongjiang province, on October 21, 2013. Choking clouds of pollution blanketed Harbin, a Chinese city famed for its annual ice festival on October 21, reports said, cutting visibility to 10 metres (33 feet) and underscoring the nation's environmental challenges.   CHINA OUT     AFP PHOTO        (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
How deadly is air pollution?
01:08 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

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.

Indian commuters make their way through heavy smog in Amritsar on November 12, 2017.
Large swathes of north India and Pakistan see a spike in pollution at the onset of winter due to crop burning.

“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.

An Indian farmer burns paddy stubble in a field on the outskirts of Jalandhar. Cooler winter air traps particulates close to the ground, preventing them from dispersing.

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.