SMOG OF THE DECADE: DELHI’S COCKTAIL OF DUST, SMOKE AND GAS

Post Diwali, India’s capital witnessed its worst smog in 17 years leading to a closure of over 5,000 schools, bans on construction activity, shutting down of the Badarpur power plant, ban on burning of leaves and a lot more to combat it. The question is, are we combating it at all?

Words: Tillana Desai

India Gate, Delhi

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Post October 31, Delhi has witnessed some of the darkest days possible – primarily because a thick, deadly and hazardous layer of smog blocked the sun for several days. It was Delhi’s worst smog in 17 years that blocked visibility beyond 200m. So what caused this kind of a situation with the air quality levels? The answer is high levels of PM specifically PM 2.5 and PM 10 in the air that is being breathed and inhaled in Delhi as you read this.

The high levels of air pollution that Delhi suffered from were on the rise specifically after Diwali celebrations. They were mainly due to firecrackers and the paddy stubble in Punjab and Haryana, coupled with low wind speed apart from other factors. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s government banned construction for a few days, tried to implement the odd-even rule, closed over 5,000 schools to give kids respite, shut down the Badarpur power plant, and banned burning leaves.

Citizens are trying to reduce their exposure to this hazardous air by opting for purifiers, flexi work timings, work from home arrangements and face masks; however the situation is still far from being under control.

This city of more than 20 million people is one of the most polluted in the world and is battling an endless struggle against cleaning a cocktail of dust, smoke and gases from its air. Such conditions recur every autumn and winter as the city is buffeted by farmers burning crop stalks in neighbouring states and atmospheric changes inhibit dispersion of regular pollution.

According to a Central Pollution Control Board 2010 study, small particulate matter penetrates deep into lungs and can reach the alveolar region, causing heart ailments. These fine particles cover a large surface area, absorb toxic compounds such as heavy metals and organic compounds with high carbon content, the study said.

These particles — spewed primarily from vehicles, factories and construction sites — are not dispersed and stay suspended in the air.

According to estimates, air pollution levels hit 999 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter in some areas of the national capital, more than 15-16 times the limit considered safe.

A lot of citizens, fed up of the government’s ineffectiveness organised a protest at Jantar Mantar recently. They were disappointed when Arvind Kejriwal cited farmers burning crop stubble in neighbouring states such as Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh as the reason for Delhi turning into a “gas chamber”.

On the other hand, NASA’s satellite imagery suggested a sharp increase in the number of crop fires in Delhi’s neighbouring states, proving the CM to be partly correct.

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Thick smog overlooking the national capital

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PM (particulate matter) 2.5 are tiny particles in the air that reduce visibility. It is fine dust that can get into the lower lung chamber, making its way into the heart and blood stream and causing serious health issues in the long run.
PM 10 is fine dust which breaches the upper lung system and causes asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory ailments. It is believed to cause heart attacks and cancer in the long term. It is 70 times finer than the thickness of a human hair, goes directly into the bloodstream and is potentially more dangerous than the pollutants made notorious by Delhi’s recent smog nightmare. And no one knows how much of it is in the air we breathe.

This crop burning is observed in preparation for the next harvest, where farmers burn crop stubble instead of manually removing this – a phenomenon which is common in Southeast Asian countries. Smoke emanating from these fires produce a thick smog, effecting its neighbours.

Health Problems on the rise
• Inflammation in the lungs
• Damage to the heart and blood vessels
• Acute respiratory infections
• Chronic bronchitis
• Asthma
• Itching and Redness in the eyes
• Skin irritation
• Headaches and dizziness
Time-bound action plan needed
Unless we chalk out a national policy, frame a time-bound action plan, and employ a strict monitoring and enforcement systems that can be effectively followed, the future looks hazy and distorted. Temporary solutions will yield nothing in the long term and we will have nowhere to turn to for fresh air.

Reader’s Speak:

Rajendra Shukla

Rajendra Shukla:

I was in Delhi for 3 days for a function. During my whole stay my eyes stung and burnt so much that it was unbearable. Visibility was very poor. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for those who stay in this city.

Ankit Shripat

Ankit Shripat:

I need to commute a slightly long distance to reach office. This journey is extremely uncomfortable for me. My eyes constantly water and I see skin reactions on my body. I am left with no option but to stay indoors unless extremely unavoidable.

Swati Purohit

Swati Purohit:

Due to smog, the visibility was hazy. It was very difficult for me to breathe properly and I did not go for my morning walk due to smog. My child did not go out to play. There is an urgent need to take some very serious measures and to curtail down the pollution.

Akshay Acharya

Akshay Acharya:

I’ve been living in the city for 25 years and never has the air quality been this bad. In the past, the deteriorating air has always not been visible. But this time, we can see how terrible it is with our own eyes and people wearing masks is not common in Delhi. While the government assesses what, further steps need to be taken to control the situation it is upon us to take measures to reduce air pollution.