Fireworks make Diwali a dangerous festival
With October begins the season of festivals for almost all of India. Celebrations start with Dussera, followed by Diwali, Christmas, New Year and Sankranti. Winter is also the preferred season for weddings with thousands of lively wedding processions occupying streets. Synonymous with these public and private celebrations is the bursting of firecrackers, often bought in large quantities and exhausted within a few hours.
In India, we burn more than 40 recognised and other dangerous forms of firecrackers, one louder than the other and all of them releasing toxic fumes into the dense winter air. The situation worsens with vehicular pollution and smoke from open burning. Calm and cool weather blocks the dispersal of smoke and pollutants, giving rise to stubborn and toxic smog.
Smog contains fine particulates and a lethal cocktail of poisonous gases like nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, and benzene. As the season progresses, doctors report increased instances of chronic respiratory symptoms; increase in emergency room visits for asthma, chronic obstructive lung disease, and acute coronary events. Children, the elderly, and those with respiratory problems are the worst affected.
In September this year, parents of three toddlers approached the Supreme Court seeking its intervention to stop the use of firecrackers during Dussehra and Diwali, asserting their children’s right to be brought up in a pollution-free environment. “They are foremost prone to lung disease, asthma, coughing, bronchitis, retarded nervous system development and cognitive impairment,” the petitioners submitted in court.
The apex court, however, refused to place a blanket ban on the use of firecrackers and expressed its displeasure over the Centre’s failure to give wide publicity to the ill effects of bursting crackers.
Poison in the air.
Air pollution is now the fifth largest killer in India. Every year, 620,000 premature deaths occur in India from air pollution-related diseases, according to “The Global Burden of Disease (GBD) report” by the World Health Organization. Delhi fares badly with a new study revealing that air pollution in the city is responsible for approximately 10,000 to 30,000 deaths annually.
But fireworks are not unique to India. Colourful displays of fireworks light the skies on important days such as the Chinese New Year and New Year’s Eve in many cities across the globe. There is, however, a crucial difference. Most countries allow their citizens to only watch the fireworks display. People line up in iconic public places to enjoy the fireworks together.
In the US, more than 23 states have a blanket ban on the sale and use of consumer fireworks. This means that all the fireworks are legally displayed by licenced operators under safe conditions monitored by the local administration. Others have partial bans and stringent time restrictions for the display of fireworks. In Beijing, Shanghai and other major Chinese cities, the use of all fireworks by citizens is banned unless specifically allowed by a licence issued by the local administration.
October was bad enough
Air quality data is not readily available for many cities and towns in India. This means it is difficult for laypersons to find out how bad the air we breathe is. At Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), analysis of the Air Quality Index (AQI) data of 14 cities shows that there was the only day with “satisfactory” air quality throughout the month of October. Air quality was “poor” and “very poor” in Kanpur, Lucknow, Faridabad, Varanasi ,and Agra.
Mumbai, Chennai, and Bengaluru had around 12 days of “satisfactory” air quality due to breezy weather. In Delhi, extreme pollution episodes have become all too common during the winters. Last winter, Delhi saw 12 days of smog, with “severe levels” persisting for three consecutive days. In other countries, such levels would have triggered a smog response system bringing in tough pollution control measures.
PM10 levels in 152 cities across India are exceeding safe levels. State-wide PM10 levels in 2013 indicate that only Mizoram, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Daman Diu, and Pondicherry meet the standard. Among states with worst PM10 levels are Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, and West Bengal.
Smaller metros also appeared to be highly polluted with Raipur, Allahabad, and Ghaziabad having higher levels of PM10 than Delhi.
The Delhi challenge
Since 2008, air pollution levels in Delhi have been rising steadily. The city’s automobile numbers have exploded during this period. The city registers 1,400 vehicles a day. This is more than two times of what it was in the pre-CNG period. Over 1.2 million car trips are made daily between Delhi and its satellite cities. Though vehicles have become cleaner with better fuel quality and tighter vehicle emission standards, air quality remains poor because of the drastic increase in the number of vehicles.
Government policy also favours the sale of diesel vehicles. Diesel cars are cheaper and are “legally” allowed higher limits for NOx and particulate emissions even as diesel is branded as a Class I carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO). Public transport and urban design are lacking in reach, efficiency and vision, forcing commuters to depend on private vehicles. Trucks headed for or simply passing through Delhi add to the problem.
On October 9, 2015, the Supreme Court had passed an order imposing an Environment Compensation Charge (ECC) of Rs 700 on all light goods vehicles and Rs 1,300 on heavy goods vehicles entering Delhi. This charge is expected to discourage trucks headed for other destinations from entering Delhi. With the contractor expressing its reluctance to collect the additional levy, the case is still being heard in court.
Paddy fields burning: Smog shrouds national capital
A major reason for the poor air quality is the burning of paddy stubble by farmers in Punjab and Haryana. This practice comes in handy for farmers as they prepare their fields for sowing Rabi crops. However, the thick smoke which emanates as a result of setting fields on fire poses serious health hazards for people. Burning fields also affects the quality of the soil, robbing it of vital nutrients. The smoke contains toxic chemicals which cause respiratory problems and other diseases.
The smoke combined with vehicular emissions make the air we breathe deadly. The national capital is the most affected by bad air quality as it lies close to Punjab and Haryana.
In India, there are two cropping seaons—Rabi and Kharif. The first one generally starts from April and lasts till October. The Rabi season lasts from November till April. To prepare their fields quickly for sowing wheat and other Rabi crops, most farmers burn the crop residues after paddy harvesting gets over. Every year in Punjab, about 7 to 8 million metric tonnes of paddy residue is burnt openly between October and November. Though erring farmers have been warned by the state authorities, they continue with this practice as it involves no cost.
Experts say lack of adequate machinery makes strict implementation of “not burning fields” impossible. Though farmers are being offered machines on subsidy to clear the stubble, they continue to resort to burning. Between the paddy harvesting and wheat sowing seasons, farmers get just 15-20 days. To clear the paddy stubble, a large number of machines are required at low prices, which is most often not the case.
With the continuous burning of paddy fields, Delhi’s air quality is degrading. Data collected from October 30 to November 2 shows that there has been a continuous rise in the reading of the Air Quality Index (AQI) of the city. The more the reading on the AQI rises, the more people are likely to suffer from adverse health impacts. The monitored value of AQI from October 30 to November 2 ranges from 201 to 297 which fall under the “Very Unhealthy” category.
Punjab and Haryana are both responsible for causing air pollution due to burning. These two states contribute to 48 per cent of the total emission due to paddy burning across India. Burning of crop residues emits traces of carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, sulphur dioxide, and particulates which affect human health. It is estimated that India annually emits 1,44,719 mg of total particulate matter from open burning of stubble.