Hoping for a happier diwali
With the festival of lights knocking at the door, Sayantan Ghosh writes about the estimated improvement in the air quality with meteorological factors in favour and the recent ban on firecrackers imposed by the SC.
Shrikant Mathur, a 14-year-old boy clad in a white and blue school uniform stops at the gate of his apartment, takes out a pollution mask and wears it because his parents repeatedly told him to do so in order to combat the city pollution. This schoolboy like many other children in the Capital suffers from acute Asthma. With the festival of lights around the corner, people in metro cities are scared as the quality of air is deteriorating at an alarming rate.
Diwali is knocking at the door and the markets of Delhi are full of cloured diyas and lights. The air-quality of the national capital is set to deteriorate further and become "very poor", with the count of pollutants, especially PM 2.5 increasing drastically, predicted the agencies. The Capital is not the only city suffering, the air quality of other metro cities has also gone down rapidly. According to the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), on Monday (September 9) the PM 2.5 concentration was recorded at 117 units in Delhi, and considered "poor" as per the Indian emissions standards. This, however, increased to 128 units on the following two days, entering the category of "very poor" air quality.
'Capital to get a better Diwali than the last one'
Despite the reports of poor air quality in the Capital, experts predicted that the air quality would be much better on Diwali this year as compared to last year. Meteorological conditions, monsoon, early Diwali and the firecracker ban would be the major reasons for an estimated better air quality, predicted environmentalists.
"Delhiites will experience much better air quality this time in Diwali because the meteorological conditions are favorable," said Sunil Dahiya, Senior Campaigner of Climate and Energy, Greenpeace India. He elaborated that there has not been much change in terms of comprehensive actions against pollution, but pollution and air quality are not only dependent on external factors but also on the climate.
Agreeing to his arguments, Dr Suresh Jain, Head of Energy and Environment department, TERI University said, "This year Diwali is being celebrated much earlier than the last one and we had also experienced a good monsoon; these factors will make the air quality better." He explained that the present air quality is deteriorating because of the external factors and the government should take proper action plans to stop that. "The polluted air is getting a passage to go out this year, which it did not happen last year. It was smoggy and foggy all over, but this year it will not happen," Jain said. He further added that proper sunshine will play a big role in maintaining the air quality this time.
What happened in last Diwali?
In 2016, Diwali fireworks pushed pollution in Delhi to a dangerous level, the worst in three years, as it turned the air highly toxic due to a deadly cocktail of harmful repairable pollutants and gases, engulfing the city with a cover of thick smog triggering health alarms.
Various monitoring agencies including Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC), Central Pollution Control Board, Pune-based SAFAR and Centre for Science and Environment were unanimous about the severity of the air quality in the city.
As per DPCCs real-time monitoring mechanism, the ultra pollutant PM 2.5 breached the safe standard by over 14 times at Anand Vihar, Delhi's most polluted area, at 2:30 am. Many other areas including densely populated RK Puram had nearly similar readings when pollution peaked past midnight. A day after Diwali the city woke up to the seasons worst air quality as smoke from Diwali fireworks, coupled with moisture and nearly stagnant wind movement, shrouded the city in a thick cover of smog. Commuters in several areas found it difficult to find their way as the visibility level plunged to nearly zero in several areas. SAFAR, an agency of Earth Sciences Ministry, said air quality was not only severe but plunged to its worst in three years during Diwali mainly due to low wind movement and falling boundary layer, that traps pollutants close to the surface.
Hurdles of tackling air pollution
Environmentalists in India found out a number of problems which cause air pollution. The experts opined that all these problems are much discussed and the authorities are well equipped to deal with these. "Thermal power plants are one of the most important sources of air pollution. The government should have to monitor the air quality of these plants exclusively and tag the data with the meteorological data of wind. If these two data are put together then it would be very easy to take immediate action and to control the air pollution," said Sunil Dahiya, Greenpeace India. He raised an important question, that when all the effects and causes of air pollution are known, why do the governments wait until the air quality becomes worst and then they have no option left except closing these plants, which thereafter affects in power supply.
The experts also suggested that the governments should take proper actions on crop burning as it is another major source of pollution. Senior officials of Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) the prime body to monitor Delhi pollution said, "The government has already written to the neighbouring states to take actions against crop burning but there have been no positive results and already the reports of burning have started coming in." The DPCC, however, agreed that they do not have any plan to deal with the matter by meeting the officials of the neighbouring states.
The dangers of crop burning
The official definition of crop burning or stubble burning is: 'Stubble burning is the deliberate setting fire of the straw stubble that remains after wheat and other grains have been harvested.' In India, it is an old practice. Punjab and Haryana comprise of large numbers of farmlands and this time of the year the farmers start working on clearing their fields so that they can start fresh work.
The program director of SAFAR, Dr G Beig, said that 70 per cent of Delhi's air pollution is caused by crop burning. He further added that the smoke after the burning of crops in the neighborhood states enters the Capital, and as at this time of the year the air becomes heavy, the polluted air cannot go out. This highly polluted air stays in the atmosphere in a condensed form and forms a layer, then other pollution sources such as firecrackers add more toxic air to this.
Ban on firecrackers in Delhi
The Supreme Court on Monday suspended any further cracker sales till November 1 as part of an experimental move to gauge the effect of crackers on the alarming air pollution levels in Delhi-NCR. Critics, however, feel this would only lead to black marketing in crackers and higher prices. The apex court said the order suspending all licenses should be tested once to see if there was any positive effect on air quality this Diwali. It would reassess the situation after the festival.
Health hazards due to air pollution
According to doctors and published research works, particulate matter (PM) in the air can cause a number of health problems and has been linked with illnesses and deaths from heart and lung disease. These effects have been associated with both short-term exposures (usually over 24 hours, but possibly as short as one hour) and long-term exposures (years). Groups particularly sensitive to particle pollution include people with heart or lung disease, are older adults and children.
Health hazards in animals
The poor air quality is not only harmful to the citizens but also for the animals dwelling in the city. They suffer from various health hazards which cause respiratory problems, loss of clear eye site, and loss of appetite. The effects are recorded predominantly in the pets as they stay in continuous observation. However, the doctors said that the effect is same for all the animals and birds.
Air pollution causes cardiovascular diseases or respiratory symptoms such as a persistent cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, tightness of chest, said a veterinary doctor. He further added that many birds suffer from breathing trouble, causing a hindrance to their flight, many birds also die at this time. A bird hospital in Delhi admitted the same and doctors said that they get a lot of cases of injured birds during this time of the year. "Most of these birds cannot fly due to breathing problems and they fall sick on the ground as well, leading to accidents," said a doctor. The bird hospital doctors also added that the birds lose eye sites due to the pollution and meet with accidents.
Delhi is not suffering alone
The Greenpeace India did a survey which has revealed that the top 20 most polluted cities had PM10  levels between 268 µg/m3 and 168 µg/m3 for the year 2015. While, Delhi topped the list with 268 µg/m3, it was followed closely by Ghaziabad, Allahabad, and Bareli in Uttar Pradesh; Faridabad in Haryana; Jharia in Jharkhand, Alwar in Rajasthan; Ranchi, Kusunda and Bastacola in Jharkhand; Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, and Patna in Bihar; with PM10 levels ranging from 258 µg/m3 to 200 µg/m3.
"Air pollution is a national public health crisis as almost none of the cities have bothered to keep air pollution in check, making them unlivable. We are facing an apocalypse right now due to unbreathable air. Deaths due to air pollution are only a fraction less than those due to use of tobacco yet authorities are turning a deaf ear to the numerous scientific reports that have set alarm bells ringing," says Sunil Dahiya.
A recent study and several reports also say that the air quality of Kolkata is also deteriorating. According to reports a joint study by the British Deputy High Commission, UKAID and Kolkata Municipal Corporation that was released last year had found that the city was already the fifth highest among major cities in the country emitting 14.8 million tons of Green House Gas (GHG) and also the second highest contributor in terms of per capita CO2 emission, producing 3.29 tonnes of CO2 per capita. Experts predicted that if this trend continues then Kolkata would become one of the most polluted cities in the world.
Every day the country is fighting with poor air quality and the ban on firecrackers has become a topic of debate. The schoolboy never likes to wear the mask because it pains, but neither does he like the chest pain when his Asthma increases. He always fails to understand why his breathing trouble goes up at this time and winter. even though he learns about pollution, he feels sad as there are no crackers. With various emotions in the mind, the festival of lights is coming. With a flicker of hope, the city is looking forward to a better Diwali.
Shrikant's school bus picks him and leaves, vanishing in the slight morning fog, leaving behind the question, is this a fog or a smog?