Pollution, not going down

- July 12, 2019
| By : Shubham Bhatia |

Even in the pre-monsoon lull, the air quality in Delhi-NCR was in the ‘unhealthy’ and ‘very poor’ category. Heavy downpours will only improve it marginally Remember how before the onset of winter in recent years the dinner table conversations in winters have been just about the severe air pollution in the Capital city? We talk […]

Indian commuters drive along a busy road as they wear masks during a polluted day in New Delhi on May 13, 2019. - New Delhi suffered a rare summer air pollution alert Monday as dust storms and heat over northern India took smog to hazardous levels. (Photo by Noemi CASSANELLI / AFP)

Even in the pre-monsoon lull, the air quality in Delhi-NCR was in the ‘unhealthy’ and ‘very poor’ category. Heavy downpours will only improve it marginally

Remember how before the onset of winter in recent years the dinner table conversations in winters have been just about the severe air pollution in the Capital city? We talk about Air Quality Index, PM10 and 2.55, the burning of crops, construction in Delhi NCR, and the other factors contributing to the pollution menace there is in Delhi.

However, as the coldness of the weather goes away, slowly, these conversations also take a back seat. The AQI didn’t change drastically, and certainly not the PM levels in the air.

Data collected by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) suggests that the issue of pollution hasn’t entirely faded away from the Capital. Areas like Lodhi Road have touched 159 (unhealthy) and other areas of the city are at ‘very poor levels’: such as Anand Vihar (387), Dwarka (374) and Okhla (312).

At the 301-400 bracket of the AQI, the level of pollution can cause “respiratory illness on prolonged exposure.” Which means, that the pro-active approach towards air pollution may not be very evident, but the average air quality in Delhi is poor.

While there are other pollutants in the air we breathe, ozone gas is a major pollution in Delhi, even during summers. To further understand the issue, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) assessed the data provided by the Central Pollution Board for Delhi NCR on a daily basis from 1 April to 15 June.

The results were shocking, the report states that the ozone levels in Delhi surpassed the average prescribed level, and went as high as 16 per cent in 2019, whereas the 2018 figure was 5 per cent. The ozone reached a figure of 122 microgram per cubic meter.

The government on the other hand has been tackling the issue since years, with reforms in vehicular movement in Delhi to halting the construction in neighbouring cities like Gurgaon and Noida, until the AQI settles.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has been coming up with stringent actions in regard to the AQI in the city. With many cases, the NGT has ordered the Delhi government to strictly look after the air, the citizens of Delhi breathe.

In its order for Vardhaman Kaushik vs Union of India & Others (2016), The National Green Tribunal (NGT) observed, “The states owe a constitutional, statutory and public law obligation to protect, provide to its citizens at least breathable if not absolutely clear air to breathe.” As a part of the same order, the NGT also provided a definition of environmental emergency, that is—whenever, particulate matter, namely PM 10 and PM 2.5 cross the 431µg/m³ and 251µg/m³ mark respectively.

In a ruling on November 26, last year, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) noted that air pollution it the Capital city is “getting worse with each passing day.” The Tribunal also mentioned that vehicular pollution and burning of plastic are the main culprits in taking the pollution level to severe category.

In a case dated July 2 regarding illegal discharge of effluents and causing air pollution by industrial and various other units in Jindpur village in Alipur division, 13 units were closed down and environmental damages were imposed.

Only one unit deposited the Rs 11 crore compensation. It was also alleged that resorts have been set up around the village, which are adding to air pollution.

Recently, the Tribunal also ordered the Central Pollution Control Board to provide a report and come up with guidelines for the management and monitoring of environmental norms by dairies in India by conducting a study in the matter.

The matter was about the generation and disposal of solid, liquid and gas waste carried on by dairy industries which has not only polluted River Yamuna but also contaminated its surrounding soil and air. The DPCC discharged the matter by saying that the matter doesn’t fall within its areas of concerns.

The Tribunal brought up the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981.

The Tribunal asked the DPCC to prosecute the polluters and in return get compensation to restore the environment polluted by them. The South and North Delhi Municipal Corporations have also been asked to pay Rs 10 lakh each in the form of guarantees to the Central Pollution Control Board for taking necessary steps within three months for restoring the environment.

The DPCC in its reply filed before the Tribunal on July 3 said that it has imposed compensation on both the Municipal Corporations, though not on the dairies. District Magistrates have been given responsibility for sealing bore-wells.

“Air pollution in Delhi is a round-the-year problem. Yes, in winters it becomes more intense and visible, even during summer you see poor levels, and sometimes very poor, but not severe. But even then these two are very bad,” says Anumita Roy Chowdhury, Executive Director Research and Advocacy at CSE.

Chowdhury says that “at least this year and since last year, one big development which has happened is that now Delhi-NCR has a comprehensive action plan. Both the regions are now legally bound to implement them. The focus and the public conversation, demand and pressure has to ensure that the action points that have been identified for different sectors get implemented.”

The clean air action plan is to meet air standards. The action points are aimed to reduce vehicles on roads, reduce vehicular emissions, implementation of parking policy to reduce congestion and pollution, measures for road and construction dust, and so on.

“In winters, what happens, is that we focus on the emergency action plan, that what we can do immediately,” Chowdhury.

While concluding, Chowdhury says “more we try and reduce our personal vehicle trips by using public transport or shared mobility, the better. Similarly, the neighbourhoods have to get more vigilant about waste burning and ensure that the Corporations are doing proper segregation and disposal of waste.”

Apart from this, what can the public do to ensure their own health? “The idea is to avoid exposure. We must realise that when we go out of the house, one should be aware of the current AQI. If there’s a situation where the AQI is very high, you may consider not going out — particularly when it comes to morning walks or jogs. These are the people who are most exposed, because while they run, they inhale a lot of air, and that will cause more damage,” explains Dr Belal Bin Asaf, consultant in the thoracic surgery department of Sir Ganga Ram Hospital.

Dr Asaf says that even if one has to go out and be exposed to radiation, then one must realise that these are only cosmetic measures, and will not protect them in the longer run.

Talking about the air purifying masks, Dr Asaf says, “People should ensure that these masks are properly fitted and have to be regularly changed. Unfortunately, in our country, there is a habit of trying to save things. So as long as it is not torn or physically damaged, people tend to keep using the mask is not the recommendation.”

So, what’s the plan to survive in the longer run? Dr Asaf says “that you try to limit your exposure, you use filters so that the defected material can go out. One can keep the air purifying plants so that we cut down the exposure to these harmful gases. There are PM 2.5 metres available, get those levels checked inside your houses and you should identify the sources of pollution within the houses. In case of those living in severe zones, one can opt for air purifiers, but just like air conditioners, the capacity has to be calculated.”