Researched by Siddhant Sachdeva
Written by Gauri Bansal
Every year, a blanket of thick and toxic smog engulfs most of the National Capital Region, with air pollution levels reaching their peak every fall. The festive period of Diwali witnesses the most exaggerated pollution levels across North India. New Delhi was ranked the 11th most polluted city in the world. Here, the air quality is so bad that the Central Pollution Control Board market it between ‘poor’ and ‘very poor’ according to their air quality index.
Air pollution is measured by PM2.5 — tiny particles (smaller than 2.5 micrometres) in the air which reduce visibility and cause the haziness that we are all so familiar with. India’s pollution control board sets the safe limit for PM2.5 at 60; in Delhi, the average annual PM2.5 measurement is recorded at 122. Further, owing to the enormous usage of firecrackers during the period, the city has witnessed an alarming rise in the PM2.5 measurement to 452 during Diwali and more than 500 on the morning after Diwali in 2016. That’s more than six times the permissible limit!
Anumita Roychowdhury, the executive director of the Centre for Science and Environment, said that the smog released by fireworks was worsened by the seasonally cooler temperature and slowing winds — “the air doesn’t blow away, and all the pollution that happens inside the city gets trapped at the ground level, very close to our noses”.
PM2.5 particles, being 30 times more fine than human hair, are easily inhaled deep into the lungs causing chronic respiratory diseases, lung cancer, heart attack and strokes, asthma, and other grave threats to human health. There is increasing acceptance of a strong causation between increased air pollution rates, especially during festivals, and the sharp rise in cases of respiratory diseases. According to India’s National Health Profile 2015, there were almost 3.5 million reported cases of acute respiratory infection (ARI) and these have been increasing at a rate of almost 20% to 30% every year. A report by the United Nation’s Children’s Fund also highlights that nearly 20% of Indian children are at a greater risk than adults, of developing life-long respiratory illnesses and even death in some cases.
Apart from the severe effects that depleting air quality has on health, people have complained about ‘zero visibility’ which has led to increased incidents of road accidents. New Delhi is already a victim to the pollution caused by high population density, toxic vehicular and industrial emissions, burning of organic and non-organic waste, and much more. During Diwali, this is heightened, with the use of firecrackers concentrated during the main two days of celebration, but also spread over weeks that precede and succeed the festival.
One can find a large variety of firecrackers in the city’s streets, almost all of which produce astonishing amounts of PM2.5. The snake tablet cracker emits the highest amount of PM2.5. As per the findings of researchers at the Chest Research Foundation (CRF) and Pune University, a snake tablet produces 64,500 mcg/m3 of PM2.5, despite burning out in only 12 seconds, but the effects of which last for three minutes. These were followed by ladis (strings of 1000 crackers) which burn for 48 seconds, producing 38,540 mcg/m3 of PM2.5 at their peak, and their pollutants last for six minutes. Next come pulpuls (a variant of colourful fuljhadis), followed by fuljhadis, chakris and anaars in the same order.
The graph above equates the PM 2.5 levels produced by each cracker (on combustion) with the PM 2.5 levels produced by a cigarette.
The Supreme Court refused to impose a complete ban on the sale of fire-crackers in Delhi during Diwali but placed a number of restrictions in an attempt to reduce their impact. The amount of crackers will be reduced to a little more than 50 lakh crackers and the number of licences given to outlets selling it to a maximum of 500 licences; the hope is to cause a shortage of crackers and push up prices, thereby indirectly reducing the incentive to purchase them.
“It seems to us that the steps so far taken by the Government of NCT of Delhi are limited to issuing directions, which is merely paperwork. No specific plan of action has been laid down by the Government of NCTD to make children aware of the hazards of bursting fireworks and the existing awareness campaigns have been allowed to drift over the last one year”, the apex court claimed.
Apart from fireworks, the government and the Supreme Court have taken measures to curb pollution from other sources. In December 2016, the Supreme Court had approved a Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) to tackle air pollution in Delhi and adjoining regions. The plan’s main objective was to institutionalize measures to tackle air pollution emergencies in the city, giving a clear direction for steps to be taken by central and state authorities.
Environment minister Harsh Vardhan said that since the launch of the GRAP, there has not been a single day when air pollution in the national capital reached severe levels
One look at current air pollution levels would tell you otherwise; most of Delhi still falls in the ‘unhealthy category’, which, to a rational observer, should count as severe.
Over the last two decades, the capital has not seen any concrete policy solutions that can curb the distressing levels of worsening air quality. For instance, from the ministry for environment’s 1997 White Paper outlining the major pollutant sources and their potential solutions to control these emissions, to the Delhi government’s 2015 42-point action plan, several policies have aimed to address all major sources of pollution. However, these have hardly ever translated into action (as evidenced by worsening environmental conditions).
The entire rhetoric around the Court’s and citizens’ concerns over Delhi’s air quality is rendered inconsequential if there is a lack of issue-specific policies and focussed actions to resolve the same. Despite the Supreme Court’s marginal ban on the sale and use of crackers, it is still uncertain whether the pollution will follow previous trends of ‘no severe levels’ of air pollution, even after Diwali.
Both, the Supreme Court and citizens of Delhi will have to anticipate the enviroment after the Diwali period, what with the SC issuing a statement that it would monitor the air quality in the capital post-festivities before taking further action on the matter.