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Not enough breathing space

Particulate matter and toxic smoke have engulfed the national capital’s air. With the onset of winter, air pollution levels have spiked to extreme levels. On Wednesday, pollution levels were ten times the safe limit, while, visibility, according to authorities, was in the 300-500 metre range. 

PM (particulate matter) 2.5 pollutant levels crossed 700 micrograms per cubic metre, which is several times higher than the safe limit of 60 micrograms per cubic metre. PM 10 levels breached the 500 micrograms per cubic metre mark in Delhi, which is much higher than the safe limit of 100 micrograms per cubic metre, according to the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research. 

To the uninitiated, PM 2.5 is a particularly dangerous pollutant because of its size. It measures less than 2.5 microns across which, according to experts is approximately 30 times smaller than the average width of the human hair. Levels beyond the safe limit can cause serious harm to the respiratory system as the ultra-fine particulates can embed themselves deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream. Children are in fact exposed to higher health risks than adults, as they breathe twice as quickly. The accumulation of particulate matter could ultimately result in cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. 

High concentration of PM 2.5 is responsible for much of the pall that hangs over cities across North India, especially in the winter. Skymet Weather Services, a private Indian company that provides weather forecast and solutions, argued: “In winters, temperatures drop quickly with winds blowing at lighter speeds. And due to the absence of the major weather systems, the sky is also clear. These factors allow the Earth’s surface to cool down quickly. 

This leads to condensation of moisture available in the air near the Earth’s surface. The dust and smoke particles mix with the condensed layer of haze and forms smog or smoke haze. This layer or blanket of pollution is suspended in the atmosphere due to the absence of strong winds, which is the case at present.”

Besides weather conditions, a whole host of other factors, including vehicular pollution, road dust, crop burning in Haryana and Punjab, excess dust from construction sites, and the after effects of noxious crackers, have turned the national capital into a virtual gas chamber. In Chinese cities, for example, where pollution levels are as severe, authorities take emergency measures. When the Air Quality Index (AQI) is over 300 for consecutive days, Beijing issues a red alert to its citizens, which results in the shutdown of schools and factories, while cars are taken off the roads. On Wednesday, the average AQI in the national capital stood at 432. 

On the previous two days, it was 389 and 445. Despite these hazardous conditions, schools remained open, and factories were still operational, while some people even thought it wise to burst firecrackers. Both the Delhi government and the Centre have been slow to respond to the growing crisis. Earlier this week, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia made a reference to the Delhi government’s plan to tackle air pollution. As per reports, the plan included the use of emission-control devices, resuming vacuum cleaning of arterial roads, sprinkling water on streets, and cutting dust pollution from construction sites. 

But a crucial meeting to address these concerns was cancelled on Wednesday after Delhi Police detained both Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his Deputy because of their attempt to visit a hospital after the suicide of an ex-solder over the alleged shortcomings in the delivery of One Rank One Pension. Health Minister Satyender Jain claims that his government was doing everything to manage pollution levels have not entirely resonated on the ground. Children were still seen battling early morning pollution while going to school, wearing face masks. 

Suffice it to say, the measures announced by the Delhi government are short-term. These actions have to be aided by long-term actions. Besides the odd-even experiment, little has been done to reduce the number of vehicles on the road. There has been little movement towards improving the state public transport. Authorities have also proposed hefty fines on those trucks and vehicles that do not meet basic pollution standards. Although the Supreme Court has passed various orders to this effect, there are key institutional concerns that have still not been resolved, including the lack of traffic personnel. 

Meanwhile, farmers in Haryana and Punjab continue to set fire to their rice fields to prepare ground for the next crop. Winds from the west and north-west direction carry the smoke from this crop burning to the national capital, adding to its pollution woes. According to a recent study conducted by the National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), crop burning in Punjab and Haryana accounts for up to 60 percent of PM 2.5 that enters the national capital. 

Although farmers are willing to consider different ways to dispose of the excess straw, no government has provided them with any affordable options. The problem of excess air pollution is not limited to Delhi. Numerous studies across national and international forums have ranked air pollution as one of the leading (if not the leading) causes of death and disability in India. 

In the midst of this emergency and a growing awareness about the ill-effects of air pollution, the market for air purifiers in Delhi over the past two years has expanded substantially. Reports indicate that the market for air purifiers have grown 40 percent in the last year, with a large chunk of sales having taken place in the Delhi-NCR region.
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