Breathless and clueless as smog envelops the capital

There is no unanimity among different governments or agencies over the real culprit behind the smog


Celebrated poet TS Eliot wrote in The Wasteland “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire”. However, for people in the National Capital
Region, it was the month of November that proved to be the cruelest month. Delhiites woke up to a thick blanket of smog and haze as Diwali celebrations concluded late on Sunday night.

Air quality hit season’s worst levels on Sunday with respirable pollutants PM 10 reaching 1,690 micrograms per cubic metre and PM 2.5 885 against safe limits of 100 and 60, respectively. Hourly AQI (air quality index) touched 497, three short of maximum 500. There was low visibility in some of Delhi’s arterial roads with pollution being 13 times over the acceptable limit in places like Anand Vihar. On Mathura Road, the Air Quality Index showed 488, which is almost 10 times over the acceptable limit. Lodi road showed a reading of 500 on the AQI as well.

Even as residents of Delhi and NCR are left reeling under severe smog conditions, there seems to be no clear call on the exact cause of pollution due to politics and blame-games

Despite a drop in sale of crackers, air pollution rose above 17 times the acceptable limit in the national capital. While tracking the AQI in different localities of Delhi, the meter showed a spike of 1100 in Vikaspuri, almost 20 times higher than the acceptable limit. Similarly readings showed in RK Puram, Anand Vihar and Punjabi Bagh. The PM 2.5 rose to “hazardous” levels — from 643 to 999 micrograms in various areas, which is several times higher than the safe limit of 60 micrograms per cubic metres, according to the Central Pollution Control Board. The PM 10 was 999 micrograms per cubic metres, also much higher than the safe limit of 100 micrograms.

Green Tribunal concern

Naturally, the National Green Tribunal has expressed concern over the Union and Delhi Government’s inability to draw an action plan on time to check air pollution that the inhabitants of the Capital city had to bear. What raises eyebrows is how the Union government, the Delhi government and governments of Punjab and Haryana have reacted. Their reaction is more of a blame game as they take potshots at one another. That is a sure giveaway that the governments are not sincere in moving with the vigour required to make a measurable difference.

Being from an agricultural state myself, I understand that farm fires in the neighbouring states have made noon look like dusk during the month. The burning of stubble is at the root of the problem. When it came to emergency measures, Arvind Kejriwal who described Delhi as a “gas chamber,” ordered closure of schools for a few days. He also ordered ban on construction and demolition for five days and coal-based Badarpur power plant temporarily shut. The government also explored possibility of engineering artificial rain and bringing back odd-even scheme. So far so good but why is it that governments come with quickies only when there is an emergency like situation.

The frustration of the NGT is understandable. The common man too feels helpless. Unfortunately, even as the common man suffers, he has stubbornly refused to see the direct relation between many of his actions and members of his family suffering from ill health. The abandon with which people celebrated Diwali with firecrackers, despite a sustained all-round campaign against the practice, is proof. The damage farmers do to their own fields by burning crop residue is largely understood by them, but probably the real import has yet to sink in. Governments will continue to remain unable to take action in this matter, as it is bound to be unpopular. The need to create more awareness, thus, cannot be overemphasised. A few specifics have been picked for immediate action by the NGT and the Centre, such as garbage burning and farm smoke. Transport in our cities packed with people is one of humanity’s biggest challenges today. It is obvious building more flyovers and roads only prolongs the agony. The real solution lies only in public transport, in which incremental investment will no longer do; a drastic change of approach is required. Or lives will continue to disappear in thick air.

Blame game

Ironically, however, even as the residents of Delhi and NCR were left reeling under severe smog conditions, there seemed to be no clear call on the exact cause of the pollution due to politics and blame-games. There was no unanimity among different governments or agencies over the real culprit behind the smog that disrupted the lives of the people. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal blamed burning of crop stubbles in neighbouring Punjab and Haryana. Union Environment Minister Anil Dave’s views were diametrically opposite to those of Arvind Kejriwal. These opposing claims show how the Centre and AAP-ruled Delhi government work on cross purposes. Refuting Kejriwal’s claims, Dave says that stubble burning is just 20 percent of the problem. Delhi’s responsibility is 80 per cent, he says. However, the Environment Minister sought to clarify that he always made an attempt to put an end to the blame game. Sensationalism and blame game have become a strategy, he says, adding that people get affected by this. “They are having trouble breathing. Deal with that first. I want the states to carry out their responsibilities,” he said.

Scientists’ take

Scientists had a different take, with their observations closer to those of Kejriwal. Gufran Beig, programme director of Safar (System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research), was of the view that straw burning in Punjab and Haryana contributed to 70 percent of the air pollution in Delhi. Beig said winds have been coming from North-North West, the areas where biomass burning is taking place, since 3 November. Wind direction is important from the point of view of stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana, which falls in the North West region. Wind blowing from that direction brings pollutant-laden smoke to Delhi, he says. Beig also says that the proportion of pollutants from crop fires in Delhi’s air rose dramatically from almost zero on 1 November to a peak of 70 percent on 6 November. “SAFAR’s chemistry transport model gives a clear picture of the share of pollution from external sources. It shows pollution load from crop fires in Punjab and Haryana rose steadily after November 1 due to favourable upper air winds,” the scientist says. Ironically, what Beig says contradicts the Environment Minister’s claims. Prima facie, the biggest reason seems to be burning of stubble in agricultural fields in Haryana and Punjab in huge quantities. Fireworks during Diwali marginally add to the pollution. The other sources of pollution in Delhi are vehicles, road dust and open burning of waste.

Unless the governments of Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and the Union government stop the blame game and ensure that there would be no burning of paddy stubble in future, check vehicular pollution and burning of waste in open, the NCR would continue for our residents and guests to the national capital, as a breathless gas chamber!