Skip to main content

Indo-Gangetic plain: Winter fog reduces crop yield, affects tourism, impacts millions

Winter haze blanketing the entire Indo-Gangetic plain and beyond 
Counterview Desk
The just-released study, “The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability and People”, a collection of papers by a large number of scholars, by the Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme (HIMAP) of the the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), has said tha tair pollution in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) is on the rise and regional air quality has worsened in the past two decades.
Pointing out that the adjacent Indo-Gangetic Plains (IGP) having become one of the most polluted regions in the world, the study believes, the causes include rapid urbanization and population growth, with emissions from diverse pollutant sources -- cookstoves, brick kilns, other industries, power plants, and transport.
According to the study, persistent winter fog and haze have increased across, leading to reduced visibility and elevated air pollution just south of the HKH and affecting air quality in the HKH as well as in the IGP. The winter fog reduces crop yields and affects tourism, impacting the lives of millions of people.


Air pollution has large impacts on the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH), affecting not just the health of people and ecosystems, but also climate, the cryosphere, monsoon patterns, water availability, agriculture, and incomes. Although the available data are not comprehensive, they clearly show that the HKH receives significant amounts of air pollution from within and outside of the region, including the Indo-Gangetic Plain (IGP), a region where many rural areas are severely polluted.
Photographs of snowy peaks against blue skies can give the impression that the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) has pristine air quality. Unfortunately, days when such photographs can be taken are becoming increasingly rare. Recent decades have seen much of the HKH suffering from major air pollution problems. Three urban cities in the HKH, including Peshawar (Pakistan), Mazar-e-Sharif (Afghanistan), and Kabul (Afghanistan), are on the list of the 20 most polluted cities in the world.
During a big fraction of the dry season, the heavily populated Indo-Gangetic Plain (IGP) just south of the HKH is covered by a thick aerosol haze that reduces visibility and obscures sunlight. The haze often penetrates deep into Himalayan valleys and at times even crosses the Himalaya to reach the Tibetan Plateau. Across the region, particulate matter (PM) -- both primary and secondary aerosols – as well as tropospheric ozone (O3)—a secondary pollutant—have increased.
Many cities in the HKH have an annual average PM2.5 concentration higher than the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline of 10 lg/m3. Furthermore, in 12 cities (Allahabad, India; Patna, India; Dehradun, India; Delhi, India; Luchnow, India; Ludhiana, India; Peshawar, Pakistan; Amritsar, India; Rawalpindi, Pakistan; Narayangonj, Bangladesh; Agra, India; Jaipur, India), the annual average concentrations are more than 10 times higher than the guideline value.
Meanwhile the IGP has seen an increase in persistent winter fog during the past two decades that is at least partly driven by increased air pollution, in addition to changes in moisture availability. The historical trends of black carbon (BC) reconstructed from lake sediment and ice cores at high altitude sites also show a dramatic increase in recent decades, starting in the 1960s.
Different pollutants may be emitted by the same source, while many pollutants are chemically transformed in the atmosphere, forming secondary pollutants, such as secondary aerosols (both organic and inorganic, such as nitrates and sulphates) and tropospheric O3.
Domestic cooking and heating, mainly using biofuels (e.g., wood and dung) is the largest source of CO and PM in the HKH. Cookstove emissions are also the largest source of BC in South Asia. This is due to low access to clean fuels and high usage of solid biofuel such as dung, charcoal, and fuelwood in the region.
Agricultural residue burning takes place in two distinct forms. The first is the burning of small piles of collected agricultural residue. This may take place on the field, or near the homes, and the purpose might be to get rid of waste material or to generate smoke to chase away mosquitoes and flies from farm animals. Such fires are lit millions of times a day across the IGP and the hilly and mountainous parts of the HKH, in both rural and peri-urban areas.
The second is the open-field burning of rice and wheat stubbles in the IGP after mechanical harvest using combine harvesters. The purpose is to clear the fields quickly for the planting of the next crop. Agricultural residue burning emits OC and BC aerosols, as well as a variety of gaseous air pollutants, including CO, CO2, CH4, NOx, and non-methane VOCs (NMVOCs).
21.32 Mt/year of residue is burned in Punjab alone, leading to 1961 Gg/year of CO, 53 Gg/year of NOx, 335 Gg/year of NMVOCs, 83 Gg/year of PM2.5, and 15 Gg/year of BC in the year 2008– 09. Agricultural residue burning is a large contributor to brown carbon (BrC) and SO2. These emissions contribute to the haze (ABC) and to the worsening of winter fog in the HKH.
PM2.5 mass concentrations of 60–390 μg/m3 have been observed during paddy residue burning, with high OC contribution of more than 30%, in Patiala, Punjab, India. Approximately 250 Gg/year of OC and 60 Gg/year of BC emissions are estimated to be due to agricultural residue burning in the IGP. It was found that in the post-monsoon season, the OC derived from biomass burning contributed a large fraction of the total aerosol OC (40%) in Lumbini, Nepal, reconfirming the regional influence of agricultural residue burning.
The open burning of waste contributes substantially to local and regional air pollution, and it is a common way to dispose of garbage in South Asia. Waste management is considered one of the most important issues in urban areas in the HKH. Indeed, public opinion shows that 59% of urban residents consider solid waste to be the most important problem in Nepal. In the same survey, only 7% listed air pollution as the most important problem; garbage burning is also one of the most poorly characterized emissions sources even in developed countries.
During the dry season, especially from March to May, many forest and scrub fires occur in the southern HKH foothills of India, Nepal, and Bhutan. An average of 3,908 fire counts per year was recorded in this region. The average burnt areas were estimated to be 1,129 km2, with BC emissions of 431 t/year.
Smoke plumes can reach altitudes of 4,000–5,000 m, which is much beyond the typical planetary boundary layer height in the region; this gives them a higher chance to undergo long-range transport for dispersion, but also brings them into contact with the lower reaches of the Himalaya cryosphere.
The fired clay brick is one of the most widely used construction materials in the HKH and the IGP, and most of the brick kilns operate only during the dry season. While data on emissions from brick kilns is still lacking, there are estimates of almost 100,000 brick kilns across the IGP.
In the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, almost 23,000 brick kilns are known to be in operation. There are no brick kilns in Bhutan and just over 100 and 1,000 brick kilns within the Kathmandu Valley and in Nepal, respectively. Indeed, 75% of global brick production is considered to be concentrated in four countries -- China (54%), India (11%), Pakistan (8%), and Bangladesh (4%) -- all part of the HKH. A significant source of SO2, NOx, BC, OC, and PM, are brick kilns as well as the primary fuels burned, matters in the resulting emissions. 
Fossil fuel combustion in the power sector contributes a large portion of SO2 emissions in the HKH, excluding brick kilns. Diesel generators are an important source of emissions that are often neglected; they are used to meet power demand during frequent power shortages in the region. Over ten million diesel pumps are estimated to be in operation in the IGP consumed by these pumps. 
Distributed generator sets are a significant pollution source and contribute to local and regional air pollution, especially during the winter and pre-monsoon seasons due to the prolonged power shortages. BC emissions estimated from diesel generators in the Kathmandu Valley are 75% of diesel emissions. When power cuts were common in the Kathmandu Valley between 2009 and 2015, emissions from diesel generators were responsible for more than half of the total BC emissions.
The transport sector contributes to emissions of all pollutants in all of the HKH countries. It is an especially important source of NOx emissions. For each of the eight HKH countries, the transport sector contributes from at least 12% up to 73% of total NOx emissions in a country. For countries with a substantial number of gasoline vehicles, CO emissions from the transport sector are also important.
SO2 emissions from the transport sector illustrate the low fuel quality with high sulphur content used in the engines. Afghanistan, China, India, and Pakistan have substantial contributions by the transport sector to BC emissions, illustrating the existence of polluting diesel vehicles in these countries.
The HKH receives pollution from sources within the region, both rural and urban, as well as from a number of regions outside. In spring, dust from the Thar Desert reaches the western and central Himalaya. South-eastern Tibet receives biomass-burning emissions from Myanmar, Bangladesh, and eastern India, while the northern parts of the Tibetan Plateau receive dust from the Taklimakan Desert.
Pollution episodes at Mount Waliguang at the north-eastern corner of the HKH, as well as at Mount Muztagh Ata, in the Pamir range and in the Pakistani Karakoram, have been traced to Central Asia and the Middle East. Manora Peak in India receives pollution from the IGP, but also from the Middle East.
The high-altitude areas of HKH were once thought to be relatively pristine, and it was assumed that the Himalaya acted as a barrier to block the transport of pollutants from South Asia to the Tibetan Plateau. However, the in situ observations have pointed out that the high Himalaya are particularly vulnerable to the haze accumulated in the foothills.



India under Modi among top 10 autocratizing nations, on verge of 'losing' democracy status

By Rajiv Shah
A new report, prepared by a top Swedish institute studying liberal democracy, has observed that there has been a sharp “dive in press freedom along with increasing repression of civil society in India associated with the current Hindu-nationalist regime of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.” The report places India among the top 10 countries that “have autocratized the most”. Other countries that have been identified for rolling towards autocracy are -- Hungary, Turkey, Poland, Serbia, Brazil, Mali, Thailand, Nicaragua and Zambia.

Savarkar 'criminally betrayed' Netaji and his INA by siding with the British rulers

By Shamsul Islam*
RSS-BJP rulers of India have been trying to show off as great fans of Netaji. But Indians must know what role ideological parents of today's RSS/BJP played against Netaji and Indian National Army (INA). The Hindu Mahasabha and RSS which always had prominent lawyers on their rolls made no attempt to defend the INA accused at Red Fort trials.

RSS supremo Deoras 'supported' Emergency, but Indira, Sanjay Gandhi 'didn't respond'

By Shamsul Islam*
National Emergency was imposed on the country by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on June 25-26, 1975, and it lasted for 19 months. This period is considered as ''dark times' for Indian democratic polity. Indira Gandhi claimed that due to Jaiprakash Narayan's call to the armed forces to disobey the 'illegal' orders of Congress rulers had created a situation of anarchy and there was danger to the existence of Indian Republic so there was no alternative but to impose Emergency under article 352 of the Constitution.

Letter to friends, mentors: Coming together of class, communal, corona viruses 'scary'

By Prof (Dr) Mansee Bal Bhargava*
COVID greetings from Ahmedabad to dear mentors and friends from around the world…
I hope you are keeping well and taking care of yourself besides caring for the people around you. I’m writing to learn how is the science and the society coping with the prevention and cure of the pandemic. I’m also writing to share the state of the corona virus that is further complicated with the long-standing class and communal viruses.

Hurried nod to Western Ghat projects: 16 lakh Goans' water security 'jeopardised'

Counterview Desk
Taking strong exception to "virtual clearances" to eco-sensitive projects in the Western Ghats, the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) in a statement has said urged for a review of the four-lane highway, 400 KV transmission line and double tracking of the railway line through the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park in Goa.

Disturbing signal? Reliance 'shifting focus' away from Indian petrochemical sector

By NS Venkataraman*
Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL), a large Indian company, has expanded and grown in a spectacular manner during the last few decades, like of which no industrial group in India has performed before. RIL is now involved in multi various activities relating to petroleum refineries, petrochemicals, oil and gas exploration, coal bed methane, life sciences, retail business, communication network, (Jio platform) media/entertainment etc.

Case for nationalising India's healthcare system amidst 'strong' private control

Counterview Desk
A draft discussion note, prepared by Dr Maya Valecha, a Gujarat-based gynecologist and activist, sent to the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) as also a large number of activists, academics and professionals as an email alert, is all set to create a flutter among policy experts for its strong insistence on nationalizing India’s healthcare system.

Clean chit to British rulers, Muslim League? Karnataka to have Veer Savarkar flyovers

By Shamsul Islam*
The BJP government of Karnataka led by BS Yediyurappa is going to honour Hindutva icon VD Savarkar by naming two of the newly built major flyovers in Bangalore and Mangalore after him. There was a huge uproar against this decision of the RSS-BJP government as many pro-Kannada organisations with opposition parties and liberal-secular organizations questioned the logic to ignore so many freedom fighters, social reformers and others from within the state.

Oxfam on WB project: ICT 'ineffective', privatised learning to worsen gender divide

By Rajiv Shah 
A top multinational NGO, with presence in several developed and developing countries, has taken strong exception to the World Bank part-funding Strengthening Teaching-Learning and Results for States (STARS) project in six Indian states – Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Odisha – for its emphasis on information and communication technology (ICT)-enabled approaches for teacher development, student assessment and digital platform for early childhood education.