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Diwali takes toll on lungs

As warned earlier, Diwali festivities have resulted in a massive spike in air pollution levels across the national capital. According to the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, the Respirable Suspended Particulate Matter (RSPM), which directly affects breathing, went up by over 23 times at certain areas of the national capital. At 11 pm on Wednesday night, PM10 was recorded at 2,308 micrograms per cubic meter (mpcm) while the prescribed standard is 100mpcm. PM2.5, for which the prescribed standard is 60mpcm, also touched an alarming high at 619mpcm at midnight in this heavily polluted area of Anand Vihar.  According to health experts, once such particulate matter enters the lungs, they restrict the availability of oxygen to lung muscles, affecting the supply of essential air flow.

Apart from other serious health-related risks, the accumulation of particulate matter could ultimately result in cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and lung cancers. On Thursday morning, the National Air Quality Index prepared by pollution-monitoring stations across Delhi reported that RK Puram had the highest level of PM 2.5 concentration at 405 mpcm, nearly seven times the safe limit.  RK Puram was followed by Anand Vihar, where PM.2.5 concentration stood at 401 mpcm. While refusing to ban bursting of crackers during Diwali or direct authorities to earmark designated places for it, the apex court last month had directed the Centre to publicise the harmful effects of crackers so that people are dissuaded from buying them. 

Suffice to say, it took the Centre until Monday to issue a public health warning against crackers on Diwali. By then, the festivities were already in full swing.  The Centre had issued a public health warning on Monday, stating that there is a serious risk of respiratory problems to people after Diwali due to prolonged exposure to pollutants. This warning could have been issued a lot earlier, with constant reminders through the days leading up to Diwali. Although the apex court had limited the bursting of sound-emitting crackers between 10 pm and 6 am during the festival, the citizens of the national capital did not follow suit. Citizens continued to blast crackers late into the night, with the national capital enveloped in a thick blanket of smog.  Moreover, ten years after the Supreme Court said fireworks must be evaluated on the basis of their chemical composition instead of the noise they produce, the Department of Explosives under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry has set guidelines for only four of 40 notified categories of explosives, according to a report by Down to Earth. Mere appeals by leading political figures, including President Pranab Mukherjee and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, are not enough to dissuade citizens. The flip side to the problem, however, is that how to enforce anti-pollution measures in a city, where millions burst crackers simultaneously? The logistical challenge is enormous, with the city’s police and various arms of administration severely understaffed. Under such circumstances, therefore, it is incumbent upon the citizens to exercise caution. What we saw on Wednesday night and Thursday morning was clearly not enough. Delhi’s citizens need to step up and realise that the lives of their children are at stake the next time they celebrate Diwali. 

However, what must be emphasised is that air pollution in Delhi is not merely restricted to bursting crackers on Diwali. At best, crackers severely exacerbate the problem, with pollution levels rising to insane levels. One of the major contributors to air pollution in India is vehicular fumes. In a 2013 report, the Centre Pollution Control Board reported that certain centers conducting checks for emissions had the fake or defective software. Poor monitoring and rule enforcement across India is a consequence of understaffed regional environment departments across various levels of administration, starting at the Centre. A Parliamentary committee report submitted in April confirmed the same. Last month, the Supreme Court (SC) had imposed an “Environment Compensation Charge” (ECC) of Rs 700 and Rs 1,300 on commercial vehicles entering Delhi, in addition to the toll tax. Beginning November 1 for four months on a trial basis, this initiative was an attempt to check the notoriously high pollution levels in the city. On the day of commencement, however, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation’s toll contractor was unable to collect the additional levy at toll booths in Delhi. 

The toll contractor was unequivocal in stating that such a tax collection was an “impossible task” in light of its staff’s field experience or the lack thereof.  Once again, the cocktail of a poor regulatory structure and lax enforcement of rules have come to haunt Delhi’s bid to reduce pollution levels.   
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