[stextbox id=”alert”]Delhi gets into a panic mode, Centre coordinates between neighbouring States, agencies float data of toxicity in the air, a tribunal and an NGO rises[/stextbox]
New Delhi: Such a scene was last witnessed in Delhi in September 1994 when the capital city was hit by plague: people going about their business in masks. This time, they are trying to protect themselves from pollution.
Different agencies have reported an alarming rise in the concentration of pollutants. The US Embassy puts the particulate matter at 640, more than 6 times the level that is accepted as safe. Another agency, System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), says that the PM 2.5 level of 590µg/m³, which it has recorded, is 15 times the safe limit. Data from the agency show the rolling average of PM10 at 950µg/m³. The Indian Medical Association (IMA) president KK Aggarwal has appealed to the people of Delhi to stay indoors, saying that the particulate matter has crossed 600, hazardous to health.
Sunday was the most polluted day when New Delhi recorded a PM 2.5 concentration of 999.99 at 12.45 am — 16.5 times higher than WHO’s prescribed norm, said the Central Pollution Control Board.
The most polluted areas are Punjabi Bagh in west Delhi, Anand Vihar in east Delhi, Mandir Marg in central Delhi and RK Puram in south Delhi. Visibility at the airport last week was at a 17-year low. Today, of course, Delhi has had a clear sky in the morning, with a moderate-to-dense fog. The maximum and minimum temperatures are expected to be 30°C and 14°C respectively.
Troubled by the situation, a group of masked activists, accompanied by school-going children, marched in protest near the Parliament House on Sunday. The placards they carried read: “Be the solution to the pollution” and “Help Delhi Breathe.” There was a protest march in neighbouring Gurgaon, too.
Delhi, at this time of the year, witnesses easterly winds and some western disturbances. However, as of November 2016, the direction of the wind is from the northwest, carrying the smoke from burning of biomass. The situation is being compared to the 1952 Great Smog in London that killed 4,000 people prematurely.
The Delhi government has instructed all school to stay shut for three days to safeguard the children, as a cloud of thick, toxic smoke has engulfed the city. Cricket matches scheduled for the period in Delhi have been called off. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has additionally imposed a moratorium on construction activities for 5 days. He has banned the use of diesel generators for 10 days and asked for water-spraying and vacuum-cleaning of PWD-made 100 ft wide roads to control dust, beginning 10 November. The generators will be allowed only at places of emergency services like hospitals and mobile towers. Electricity connections will be given to whoever asks for them, the chief minister has assured. The Badarpur coal-powered power plant will be closed for 10 days, beginning Monday, because it generates fly ash.
All MCD schools were closed on Friday. A few had declared holiday till Monday. Others called off their morning assemblies or delayed the school timings. Not all schools are taking the order lying down, though. “Government cannot order shutting of schools like this. Health is important but we need to focus on finishing syllabus also. Our schools will remain open,” RC Jain, head of Delhi State Public Schools’ Management Association, said.
Ignoring the possible fallout of such a statement on the AAP’s poll prospects in Punjab elections, Kejriwal has blamed the farmers of that State as well as Haryana of burning about 20 tonnes of crop stubble, the smoke from which has invaded Delhi. He has described today’s Delhi as a “gas chamber”. But how responsible are the farmers? ISRO images show that pollutants from the neighbouring states constitute only 20% of the total pollutants in the air of Delhi.
The chief minister has also asked the corporation to check fire in Delhi’s landfill sites. A mobile application by the environment department will be launched shortly to enable the people to alert authorities about garbage burning. The sanitary inspector and other officers found guilty will be penalised. Transportation of fly ash will be stopped for 10 days.
The Kejriwal government is also contemplating a renewal of the odd-even car rationing scheme, although this had had little effect on pollution on the last two occasions when it was tried. Once again, motorcyclists and light transport vehicles, the largest vehicular pollutants in Delhi, are likely to be spared while the movement of cars, which pollute Delhi much less, An IIT study conducted in 2015 had established that road dust led to 56% of PM10 and 38% of PM2.5; all vehicles combined caused 9% of PM10 and 20% of PM2.5. Within this small percentage of vehicular pollution, 46% of PM10 and PM2.5 could be attributed to trucks and 33% to two-wheelers. Four-wheelers run on diesel contributed 10%, the study said, which was less than 1% of all pollutants in Delhi.
The local government is so desperate that it is also mulling over introduction of outlandish measures like artificial rain with cloud seeding to tackle pollution. “We are making preparations for odd-even; and after assessment, we may impose that as well. There is a suggestion for artificial rain as well which is being examined but we need to work with the central government on this,” Kejriwal said. When such a measure was taken in China in 2013, Hong Yanchao, the deputy director of the National Consultation and Evaluation Committee for Weather Modification, had pointed out that it was near impossible to reduce smog and improve air quality by means of using artificial rainfall under the current weather modification technologies.
There are certain weather conditions that must be met before conducting artificial rainfall, Hong said, explaining that these included humidity and ice crystal concentration. “Usually smog weather does not meet these conditions,” he had said. It is smog weather now in Delhi, meaning that artificial rain cannot tackle it. It indeed did not work in China in 2013.
But the political heads alone are not being scientifically naïve. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) had questioned the Hindu-Jain-Buddhist-Sikh ritual of cremating the dead in February. It had also taken suo motu cognisance of the cultural festival organised by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Art of Living in August. It has yet to break its silence on whether the act of plastering of graves by Christians and Muslims does not limit land use and condemn the land with concrete.
The last two weeks also saw a bunch of activists appealing to the people to celebrate a cracker-free Diwali, which led to a group of Hindus question on social media platforms why Muslims were not asked to observe Eid ul Adha without animal sacrifice.
The NGT has not been pro-active in ensuring that the States follow its direction of December 2015 to stop incentives to farmers who burn crop stubble. Finally, today, it criticised the Delhi government and three other neighbouring States — Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan — for not taking enough and timely action to curb air pollution in the capital. The tribunal is approaching the Supreme Court, which is slated to respond to an 8-page report by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi-based environmentalist NGO, on Tuesday, ruling inter alia whether the government has ignored its order of diverting Delhi-bound old trucks among other orders. The CSE report is part of the MC Mehta case of 1985 vintage.
Anumita Roychowdhury, CSE’s executive director, while appreciating the emergency measures being anticipated by the Delhi government, believes that vehicular pollution is unfortunately being left unaddressed.
The Delhi government has another task in hand — to check black marketing of pollution masks. Their normal price is Rs 30. They are now selling at Rs 1,000 – Rs 2,500. Private companies like Indus Towers, Lava and Intex Technologies, meanwhile, have started providing air filtering masks to their employees and installing air purifiers. Some of these companies are providing masks to the families of employees, too.
American Tower Corporation and Coca-Cola are about to announce flexible working hours so that their employees can leave homes for work during hours that are the least polluted. Google, Huawei, Panasonic and LG Electronics India have installed air purifiers in their local offices. HCL and Panasonic have advised their employees not to venture outdoors unless unavoidable.
The Gurgaon district administration, headed by TL Satyaprakash, Deputy Commissioner, has imposed Section 144 of CrPC on this satellite township and prohibited the burning of waste, garbage and other materials openly in the region. The ban will stay until the city becomes smoke-free.
In the meantime, the Centre has convened an emergency meeting of Environment Ministers of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh to find solutions to the problem of pollution. Union Environment Minister Anil Madhav Dave, who is chairing the meeting, has criticised the section of media that is politicising the issue.
Interestingly, Kejriwal has made the same appeal. “Instead of politicising the issue, all stakeholders need to work together to find an effective solution to this. Crop burning is going to continue for a few more days and we need to take immediate steps. Let’s not point fingers but work together to bring a solution,” he told reporters.
Not impressed, Kejriwal’s friend-turned-foe and Swaraj India president Yogendra Yadav said, “Be it the Municipal Corporations of Delhi, the Delhi government or the Centre, none of the authorities have done justice to the tasks assigned to them, which would have led to control over pollution.”
This report has been prepared by compiling those of various news agencies and media sites. The featured image is a PTI photo. The photograph in the social media thumbnail is by Adnan Abidi of Reuters.