Breathless in Delhi: The causes and consequences of the Delhi smog

Chennai, November 10: Delhi was covered with thick smog after Diwali, reaching a PM2.5 level of 999 on October 31st morning. The particulate matter level in the air was more than double that of last year. Areas such as the Pitampura suburb of north Delhi showed PM2.5 levels increased to 1,238 on October 30.

The smog, since Diwali, has been persistent due to weather conditions such as low wind speed, lack of vertical wind and lower temperatures. Winds usually blow the pollutants and particulate matter away, helping to clear up some of the smog. But with no winds, the pollutants remain stagnant in the air.

Apart from the vehicular traffic and firecracker smoke that are expected attributes of the festive season, the burning of post-harvest paddy stalks in neighbouring states is also being blamed. “The burning of crops have been happening for a long time and of course it is a contributing factor, but it’s incorrect to blame the farmers entirely,” said Pushp Jain, an environmentalist from Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE).

“Also the agriculture in Haryana and Punjab has decreased and lands are used for residential, horticulture and industrial purposes,” he added.

Another cause for air pollution in Delhi is the burning of brick kilns. “It’s very dangerous and nobody is putting a finger sharply on this issue. It produces not only particulate matter but also toxic chemicals,” Mr. Jain said.

Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi, has declared that all schools must be closed for three days. Other measures include another round of the odd-even initiative to curb vehicular traffic, shutting down Badarpur coal plant for 10 days, a five- day ban on all construction and demolition in the city, water sprinkling of roads and a five-day ban on diesel generators, except at places such as hospitals and cell phone towers.

The CM Kejriwal has also directed his officials to look into cloud seeding, a process that induces artificial rain that can help settle pollutants and clear the smog. But top scientists from Pune’s Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology have commented that the idea may be a little too ambitious because the nature of pollutants must also be understood.

The Delhi Government has been criticized for there “Knee jerk reaction” to the whole issue. “No long term mitigations have been taken care of,” said Mr. Jain.

Sunita Narain, Director General, Centre for Science and Environment, said, “If the government does not want it to be too little too late, then it has to ensure effective implementation of each measure so that air pollution is lowered at least to ‘poor’ from the existing ‘severe’ levels.”

Besides the aggravated health conditions in people having a history of respiratory diseases, there have been a spike in fresh cases being admitted to Delhi hospitals.

"Earlier 15-20 per cent pollution-related ailment cases were reported at our hospital. But now these have gone up to 60 percent," said Dr. S. P. Byotra, senior consultant and chairman of the department of medicine at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital.

The smog is said to have cleared up, because the weather has improved. “Now it’s cleared up a bit, but I don’t think it’s because of the measures. The National Green Tribunal of Delhi is looking up the matter actively for the past three days in court to discuss further actions,” said Meera Gopalan, a lawyer from LIFE.

Currently, the Pollution Control Board has been requested to make a comparative study in the coming week, to see what the other factors lead to this situation.

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