Twenty seven year-old Neha Sahay does not have a choice and always feels helpless during the winter season in Delhi. A resident of Gurugram and a senior sales executive by profession she does not only have to travel from Gurugram to Delhi five days a week but then also travel through crowded Delhi roads afterwards for her official duties.
Neha is asthmatic and each winter , Delhi’s polluted air causes her to increase her usage of bronchodilators. She fears that if the situation worsens she may be put on stronger doses of medication and steroids by her pulmonologist.
“I reduce my travel during this season and mostly try to work indoors but as much as I desire to not breathe this air, I just have no option. The internal air is as bad though not worse outside. I ultimately need to work to survive”, says Neha when asked about what measures she adopts to protect herself from Delhi’s toxic air.
The plight of Neha is not alone. Several official and unofficial reports have suggested that how highly polluted Delhi’s air continues to have its adverse effect on the health of Delhiites even after most of the Delhiites today realise they are inhaling poisonous air.
A shocking reality today confronts each parent of Delhi that one out of every three child in the city faces some kind of respiratory disorder attributed mainly due to Delhi’s air. Despite this from 7AM to 9AM, the time when the levels of air pollution in the city are at its peak and the poisonous smog engulfs the city, most of the children have to attend their schools. Most of the medical experts also cite that it is not only the lungs of Delhiites which are at risk.
The toxic particulate matters which can also enter into the blood supply system can affect the functioning of various vital organs and can cause cardiac and kidney ailments.
As Delhi comes to terms with another phase of deadly pollution that spikes during the months of October to February, the question remains: Will the city and its neighbouring regions be able to combat this danger which poses threat to the city’s present and the future generations.
Does Delhi have the will to win and overcome the source of its public health emergency?
The presence of top level doctors, environmentalists, better data recording techniques and media have enabled the Government and the citizens to be aware of the harmful particulate matter that is present in city’s air and its deadly effects.
Citizens realised the harmful effects of particulate matters of 2.5 microns, 10 microns, harmful combinations like Nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and Sulphur dioxide, the sources of their emission and their required levels for the healthy environment.
With Delhi citizens soon realising those extremely high levels of these particulate matters was causing a severe harm to its health, voices of fear, panic and anger started emerging causing the executive and the judiciary to act.
Tough measures were taken against the Diesel vehicles, hefty fines were imposed on the Diesel trucks to prevent them from plying in the city and initiatives like odd- even scheme were introduced to reduce vehicular traffic in the city and consequently, the air pollution.
A city, which for long had been complacent and quiet on the issue of pollution had now started talking and acting against it.
October 31, a day after Diwali however again reflected the sad reality of air pollution in the city when a thick layer of toxic smog engulfed the city.
Far from its safe limits of 100 micrograms per cubic meter, the PM10 levels ranged from 1200 -1400, 12 to 14 times higher than its standard limits, while the more dangerous PM2.5 levels ranged from 600 - 800, which were 10 to 12 times higher than the safe limits of 60 micrograms per cubic meter. Experts highlight that this occurrence is similar to smoking 15-20 cigarettes a day.
The thick smog after Diwali may have raised the debate of limiting the usage of crackers in the city but the deterioration of the quality of air had begun much earlier. Late September onwards, the smoke from the burnt paddy remnants from the fields of Punjab and Haryana started polluting the city’s air.
The problem still persists and continues to be among one of the major factors that cause the air pollution.
Other challenges like dust pollution, vehicular pollution and industrial pollution also continue to plague the city. While tough measures like the temporary ban on the diesel vehicles in the city and the odd-even scheme tried to tackle the vehicular pollution, according to the IIT Kanpur report, vehicles are not the leading contributors when it comes to pollution.
Road dust according to IIT Kanpur, is the leading cause of pollution in the city contributing about 36 percent of pollutants. The challenge of dust pollution is yet to be tackled by the government authorities.
Even as the Delhi government initiated the move to vacuum clean the roads, it was later suspended when the monsoons hit. The Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi, Manish Sisodia, recently announced that tackling dust pollution was the key priority of the government and the government will again initiate vacuum cleaning of roads.
Air pollution which emanates from power plants still needs to be tackled fully. While the power plant at Rajghat has been closed, the coal based power plant at Badarpur still continues to function. The piling of waste at the three landfill sites of Ghazipur, Okhla and Bhalswa of the city also escalates the deterioration of city’s air.
In highlighting that the responsibility in tackling pollution should not be avoided amid the geographical disadvantages of the city, Vivek Chattopadhyay from Centre for Science and Environment says, “Low wind speed, the presence of dry conditions and landlocked environment prevents the removal of these poisonous particulate matters from the city. This, however, should not deter the residents to take up their responsibility. People still continue to burn waste in the open.”
Delhi being the capital city may be getting more coverage, however, other metro cities like Lucknow, Kanpur, Noida, Gurugram and even Mumbai continue to reel under the effects of severe air pollution.
Chetan Aggarwal, a Gurugram environmentalist says, “Delhi today may be in the news of its poor air quality but even cities of Gurugram, Noida and Ghaziabad are equally bad.
The reason the pollution figures in these areas do not get repeated is because there are no official monitoring stations installed in these areas and the pollution figures are not regularly updated.”
Citing that a public health emergency situation should be advised in the city by the government, Anumita Roychowdhury, member Environment pollution Prevention and Control Authority (EPCA) says, “Even as the citizens and the Government today realise the severity of the air we are breathing, we still do not take the appropriate action till the crisis really hits upon us.
This contaminated air is affecting us all and yet, no advisory has been introduced to combat this problem. Rules and guidelines have been set, it is now important for to implement them and monitor its progress regularly.”
The recently released movie Pink made a telling statement on the air quality in Delhi with the scene where Amitabh Bachchan, who plays a lawyer in the movie, walks the streets of the city wearing an N-95 mask.
With a dead river (Yamuna), defeaning noise levels and an unhealthy air that kills, Delhi has created a situation for itself where living and travelling in the city requires wearing a mask, buying an air purifier or worse keeping your bronchodilator with you. The city today, is trying to escape from shackles of pollution and helplessly asks for its freedom. Who will fight our case?
''Even as the citizens and government realise the severity of the problem, we still do not take the appropriate action till the crisis really hits us''- Anumita RoychowdhuryMEMBER of EPCA
''Low wind speed, the presence of dry conditions and landlocked environment prevents the removal of these poisonous particulate matters from the city''- <div style="display: inline !important;">Vivek ChattopadhyayCentre for Science and Environment