Delhi Gasps for Breath Once Again
As the heavens opened up on Saturday, 2nd November, all the pollution measuring stations in the Delhi-National Capital Region, saw a drastic spike in the Air Quality Index of the city. Residents were left baffled, as even the downpour of rain did not prove sufficient to alleviate the pollution shrouding the skies. Owing to the increased humidity in the air, the particulate matter settled closer to the ground, and by evening there was an upsurge in pollution levels. People in Delhi-NCR woke up to a Sunday morning that made them palpitate—pervasive air immediately seared nostrils and stung eyes as a grey and opaque smog hovered over the city’s vast landscape. “This surge in air pollution is an alarmingly frequent phenomenon. It’s almost like I’ve become a passive smoker for a while now, and it’s a horrible experience,” said Jason Ezekial, a student at St. Stephen’s College.
According to a study carried out by the World Health Organization (WHO) among 1600 cities, Delhi ranks first in its list of major cities most affected by air pollution. With Diwali celebrations having taken place recently, episodic sources such as firecrackers might have added to Delhi’s air pollution woes. However, at this stage, when Delhi’s air quality is worsening rapidly over time, the National Capital cannot afford to overlook the constant sources of pollution, which are primarily—transport emissions, industrial outputs, dust, and stubble burning—whose contributions put the entire National Capital Region at high-risk for most of the year.
To quickly and inexpensively clear their fields to sow wheat each year, farmers in northern India burn an estimated twenty-three million tons of straw from their rice harvests. Even though there are regulations in place in order to help reduce agricultural fires, the burning continues. This may be because of the implementation challenges faced by the government and the lack of clarity among farmers about the profitability of using alternate methods. The pollution from stubble burning in neighbouring states has been chocking Delhi year after year. The Supreme Court raised the alarm and took serious note of crop burning in Punjab, Haryana and western UP on 4th November. It demanded an explanation to why the states had failed to take adequate steps in order to curb stubble burning earlier, and directed officials to take strict action against those found burning crop residue. The court declared that any instance of stubble burning hereafter would be penalised.
In addition to the Supreme Court issuing directives to tackle stubble burning, the Delhi Government’s re-launching of the odd-even scheme hopes to reduce pollution by curbing the number of vehicles on the roads. Under the scheme that was put into effect on 4th November, the vehicles with an odd last-digit in their registration number will have access to the roads on odd dates, while those with an even last digit will ply on even dates. The rule is pertinent from 8 AM to 8 PM, except on Sundays, and on November 11th and 12th, on account of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev. Those violating the edict are currently being fined Rs 4,000, with the first day of the implementation resulting in 259 violators being issued challans by the Delhi Traffic Police.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) also observed that one of the major sources of air pollution is dust emission from construction activities. Terming the situation in Delhi-NCR as “atrocious”, the Supreme Court banned all construction and demolition activities in the National Capital Region, along with the burning of garbage and waste. Those carrying out construction and demolition activities, despite this order, would be fined one lakh rupees. An added penalty of five thousand rupees would be imposed if anyone was found burning garbage or waste in the region. The NGT also acknowledged that the daily-wage workers who depend on construction sites to make a living are the worst sufferers of the ban that will, in effect, render them unemployed. Thus, it recommended to the Centre that a stipend or compensation be given to these daily-wage labourers.
The dreadful air quality experienced in Delhi not only comes in the way of the city’s economic and social progress but also affects the well-being of its citizens drastically. The number of patients complaining of coughing, wheezing, and chest congestion has seen a significant increase in recent times. Authorities monitoring pollution also said that the deteriorating air quality warranted the declaration of a ‘public health emergency’. Taking into account these developments, on November 1, 2019, a public health emergency was declared by the Environment Pollution Prevention and Control Authority (EPCA) in the national capital. In light of the spurt in pollution levels, the administrations in Ghaziabad, Noida, Greater Noida, Gurgaon, and Faridabad had ordered all government and private schools to be shut till 5th November.
The alarmingly high level of air pollution has also emerged as a challenge for airlines operating in and out of Delhi. The dense smog forced flight operations at the Indira Gandhi International (IGI) airport into chaos, while poor visibility led to over 550 flights being delayed, and 37 flights diverted to nearby airports on November 3rd.
The Air Quality Index (AQI) in most parts of Delhi, even now, continues to oscillate between the ‘poor’ and ‘severe’ categories. The conditions this year, again draw attention to the dismal pollution levels of the city that have only gone from bad to worse. To keep track of the situation in Delhi, The Prime Minister’s Office has set up a panel to monitor the increasing levels of air pollution. The panel is required to submit a report to Prime Minister Narendra Modi within the next week. In response to the crisis, over the past few weeks, residents of the city have stepped up to help fellow citizens by using social media platforms and public spaces to spread awareness and initiate campaigns.
It is now clear, that knee-jerk reactions only when the condition is severe, will no longer suffice to solve the problem. A carefully considered plan of action, put into place well before the winter months arrive, is the need of the hour to provide a permanent solution to this annual plight of Delhi’s citizens. Moreover, air pollution is a crisis that cuts across all political, state, and social divides. A concerted effort from all the affected governments, experts in the field, and the citizenry will be required to finally return clear skies and healthy air to the people of Delhi.
Featured Image Credits: Business Today