In Retrospect

Green Diwali: An Oxymoron?

This Diwali, despite intervention, Delhi’s air quality crisis has shown little respite – the only way forward is to take cognizance across the year and not only when calamity strikes

Open the window to look outside – smog-covered roads, the burning smell of toxic air, masked children awaiting their school buses and, your eyes, already watering red. Welcome to the National Capital Region, possibly the most polluted region in India with Delhi standing as among the most polluted capitals of the world.

Hours after Diwali celebrations, a thick haze enveloped Delhi-NCR as the air quality on Thursday morning plunged to 'hazardous' – Anand Vihar and areas around Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium recorded 999 AQI and Chanakyapuri stood at 459. The Supreme Court had fixed a two-hour time-frame, from 8 pm to 10 pm, for bursting firecrackers on Diwali. People, however, remained unmindful of the deadline and continued bursting firecrackers until much later, leading to severe deterioration in the air quality.

Seasonal air pollution

Every year before winter, northern India suffers from air pollution, and then comes Diwali, the festival of lights. The air quality becomes toxic to the extent that it can choke the lungs causing death. Air pollution is responsible for 10,000 to 30,000 deaths in Delhi every year. It is also the fifth leading cause of deaths in India, a report by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) had stated in 2015.

"First, let us be clear, Delhi has its own sources of pollution and the arrival of winter plays a big role in shooting up air pollution levels. This is also the time when stubble burning takes place across parts of northern India. But the reason that pollution peaks in winters is not only because of the farmers in Punjab and Haryana who are burning their crop stubble at this time. Our discussion should be beyond stubble burning," says Anumita Roychoudhury, the executive director of CSE.

It has been noted that pollution is worse in winters because of adverse weather conditions, which lead to inversion (cold air settles); moisture (traps the pollutants) and poor wind (does not allow for dispersion). This is why even though the sources of pollution remain constant throughout the year, the level of pollution peaks in winters.

Air pollution here results from the combination of a rapid increase in pollution sources due to unplanned urbanisation and the geographical disadvantage of this landlocked region that makes it extremely vulnerable to winter inversion leading to a massive drop in air quality. Delhi does not have any clean water body nor a coastline and, moreover, the Himalayas in the north blocks the path of the air flow in the winter as the wind becomes heavy and flows downwards.

Air pollution is an emergency concern, which caused the Supreme Court to take cognizance of it in the late 1990s. A statutory body, the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority, also known as the EPCA, was constituted by the central government in 1998 at the behest of the Supreme Court. The EPCA formulated an emergency action plan to tackle pollution, known as the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP). Last year in October, when air quality touched the 'severe' category, GRAP was imposed. Eventually, the emergency plan worked and the pollution level was in control.

GRAP has various rules and restrictions based on air quality, but we should remember that it is an emergency plan and not a permanent solution. This year, when EPCA raised its concerns to the Supreme Court explaining the mandatory implementation of this plan every year till a permanent solution can be found, the apex court observed that GRAP will be imposed every year from October 15 to March 15.

"Despite the many rules, we should all remember that people have to come out and spread awareness on pollution because it's a public health concern. Also, we cannot depend on GRAP to tackle pollution every year," Roychoudhury added.

Green Crackers

Recently, by restricting the use of firecrackers, the Supreme Court of India has only allowed the manufacturing and sale of 'green crackers'. The Council of Scientific & Industrial Research's National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (CSIR-NEERI) has formulated and manufactured green crackers for the first time in India.

According to Dr Rakesh Kumar, the Director of CSIR-NEERI, the green crackers do not contain harmful chemicals and, hence, do not cause air pollution. Scientists have given these crackers names: Safe Water Releaser (SWAS), Safe Thermite Cracker (STAR) and Safe Minimal Aluminium (SAFAL). These crackers do not contain aluminium, barium, potassium nitrate and carbon, which are considered to be the major pollutants. "With green crackers, the emission is reduced by 15-30 per cent and these are not harmful. We have made these crackers with utmost care and after a lot of research. These crackers will give the same pleasure of burning but will not cause pollution, which was our goal," said Kumar.

However, the capital's cracker markets were quite clueless about such crackers which had reportedly reached restricted markets this year. Next year, the green crackers will hit the market and only then would the effect be clear. Keeping in mind the manufacturing of such crackers and the huge demand it would garner, the formula of manufacturing would be shared with private entities. There is already a doubt hanging over this process.

In India, crackers are manufactured unscientifically and if the authorities do not come up with separate rules for the manufacturing of green crackers, do not make guidelines and monitor the process then there is a chance that not much change will take place.

Killing the green

In the last few years, on one side there have been discussions on green Diwali but on the other side, there has been a severe destruction of greenery. In Delhi, for various redevelopment projects, nearly 30,000 trees were supposed to be cut. However, under public duress, major redevelopment projects were stalled with direction from the court. But several trees have already been felled.

"The irony is that in India the states play a major role in the destruction of greenery and, when winter arrives, they look for an emergency plan to control pollution," said Vimlendu Jha, an environmentalist.

Last week, over 1,200 residents of Gurugram and Delhi made their way to the Aravali Biodiversity Park early Sunday morning to protest against the National Highways Authority of India's (NHAI) and Gurugram Metropolitan Development Authority's (GMDA) decision to construct a six-lane, 2-km expressway cutting through the eastern-half of the forest cover.

All such projects are being undertaken and monitored by several state governments and the Centre. "Environmental issues are yet to become an agenda of electoral politics; hence, none of the manifestos talks about the preservation of the environment. The time is now as the situation is changing," said Jha.

Every year, Diwali comes and our cities are choked with air pollution. But, with the end of winter, the situation changes and the authorities quietly forget the crisis. The absence of mediated action is killing many tomorrows. Children are suffering from asthma, death due to pollution is on the rise and hospital beds are filled to the brim with breathing-disorder patients. However, there is silence. A silence of negligence, a silence of avoidance, a silence of priorities and a silence on giving everyone their right to breathe fresh. Hoping for a green Diwali is unlikely to make the festival green – but understanding and working to fix this health emergency might bring a green India someday.

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