A Burning Issue

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A Burning Issue

Sunday, 04 November 2018 | Sapna Singh

A Burning Issue

Eyes burning, feeling tired and chest wheezing? It’s that time of the year again where vehicular pollution, construction dust and stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana cause Delhi-NCR to choke. A report by SAPNA SINGH

Air Quality Index, November 3, 2018, at Anand Vihar: 199

At Sri Aurobindo Marg: 192

Delhi is the most polluted city on Earth, says the World Health Organisation (WHO). Therefore, when the Capital recorded its worst air quality of this season — October 28, 2018, it should not have come as a surprise. The overall Air Quality Index (AQI) in the city stood at 381, as per data by the Central Pollution Control Board. Twelve monitoring stations located in various parts of Delhi recorded severe air quality while 20 recorded very poor air quality.

The dip in air quality is due local factors like construction dust and vehicular pollution as well as regional factors like crop stubble burning from Punjab and Haryana.

Truth is, the killing pollution levels can be curbed with systematic planning. But who cares! Not the Government definitely and not the citizens either. The crop stubbles in the air can be buried with technology, the vehicular pollution can be easily curbed, the constant — and sometimes money-spinning — construction can be halved and still the infrastructure can be built. But, these are just dreams.

According to data released by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, levels of Suspended Particulate Matter PM2.5 increased by 62.7 per cent on November 2, 2016. On November 4, 2016, System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research, a unit of the  Ministry of Earth Sciences, said that the average concentration of PM 10 was 566 µgm3 while PM 2.5 was 449 µgm3. The normal PM 10 is 100, while the safe limit for PM 2.5 is 60.

For those who don’t know what smog is, it is a term derived from merging of two words — smoke and fog. It consists of a mixture of air pollutants like fine particles, toxic gases, water vapour and ground level ozone. The main sources of these are pollutants released directly into the air by diesel-run vehicles, industrial gases and heating/burning due to human activities.

And it is not as if there is a lack of monitoring agencies. There are several — From the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to Central Pollution Control Board to the Ministry of Earth Sciences to System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR) to the US Embassy’s air quality index  to Delhi Government’s Delhi Pollution Control Committee. These agencies collect round the clock data to calculate average AQI and warn authorities and people about the adverse impact of inhaling the noxious gases particularly in the winters in India —October-January.

The smog and haze hanging over the city have given several wakeup calls to both Centre and the State but the right approach to combat capital’s air pollution is still at large. In the meantime, the citizens will suffer.

Recent studies have indicated that exposure to particulate air pollution also may be associated with acute heart attack. This may be due in part, to a sympathetic stress response, as detected by changes in heart rate variability, the production of cytokines, and an increased vulnerability to plaque rupture. Some responsible pollutants include carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and small particulate matter (less than 10 microns and less than 2.5 microns).

Speaking about this Dr KK Aggarwal, president, Heart Care Foundation of India, said: “Delhi has been experiencing high air pollution levels since the past few days. The air quality is particularly poor in the early morning when pollution is extremely high. This is also the time when many people venture out to exercise or drop their children to school. It is imperative to use a mask and also make people aware of the harmful effects of air pollution.”

This is the fourth year in a row that air pollution in Delhi has become severe and Environment Pollution Control Agency (EPCA), a Supreme Court monitoring body has ordered not to ply private vehicle on Delhi roads taking punitive steps to tackle air pollution problem.

According to Gurfan Beige, director, SAFAR, the PM 2.5 is dangerous, “The concentration of this harmful particulate matter is in micrograms per cubic meter and can be reached in lungs easily.”

This year, when the worst is yet to come, the levels of Particulate Matter (PM) 10 has been recorded 1,078  µgm-3 in Dwarka. However, the AQI has crossed 400 and is approaching second phase after crossing values 500 on National Ambient Air Quality Index.

According to the US Embassy’s measurements, last year, air in New Delhi reached PM 2.5 concentrations of more than 1,200 micrograms per cubic meter, which means that values were recorded 48 times the guidelines values established by the WHO. Now, as per the collective data of the US Embassy, Delhi was short of the record last year, as Shenyang, China recorded the worst levels as PM 2.5 topped 1,400.

Three major factors choke Delhi. First is the aerosol formation. A 2012 IIT, Delhi, study on aerosol formation stated that the entire Indo-Gangetic belt is prone to high levels of oxides of nitrogen and sulphur which increase levels of Particulate Matter in the air.

Second is the coal menace. Eastern Uttar Pradesh has close to seven coal-fired thermal power plants. Studies by Urban Emissions, an organisation that deals with analysis of air pollution has identified that the changing wind patterns in the IGP, especially during the winters, tend to carry the emissions from the power plants to several hundreds of km depending on the speed of the wind. Delhi, though located at a distance, continues to be influenced by the long-range transportation of pollutants from coal.

Third, Uttar Pradesh is home to more than 200 million people. The State is also known for its highly-concentrated industrial landscape. Key industrial hotspots start with Ghaziabad bordering Delhi and stretch up to the district of Sonbadhra bordering Madhya Pradesh which produces close to 10 per cent of India’s coal-fired electricity.

Then there are other winter-specific activities like burning of crop stubble in Punjab and Haryana upstream of Delhi, and burning of fire crackers on Diwali. All these add to the deadly cocktail alongside the very unique meteorological conditions that do not allow dispersal of air as winter sets in. A combination of all these, makes for a ticking dynamite-like situation in Delhi and other cities located in the northern belt.

What is more alarming than the fact that the authorities are not taking concentrated steps toward tackling the issue is that the smog is here to stay even if drastic steps are taken. And it is not just going to be a winter phenomenon.

When was the last time one saw a clear sky in Delhi in summers. There is always a haze. People are  aware of the reasons for the problem. It is not just about crackers on Diwali. It is an amalgamation of several things like the farmers burning the crops in Punjab and Haryana to vehicular pollution and our increased dependency on the use of diesel. Everyone is asking the Government to take action, but what about citizens taking responsibility?

Why is it that the farmers are not being tackled? They continue to do what they want to with impunity because they are part of the vote bank. But they too are being affected. No immunity should be given to anyone, whether farmers, fishermen or even corporates or people belonging to any caste, creed and religion. We should all be responsible for the environment since our actions impact it.

Environmentalist tells you that pollutants know no boundaries. SAFAR’s recent analysis on biomass burning proves this statement. Much of pollution is coming from the farms situated in Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pardesh and the reason is with the rice harvest over, farmers prefer to burn crop residue in order to prepare agriculture land for nest crop.

According to collected pollution database from SAFAR stubble burning contributes between 12-38 per cent to the overall pollution in the Capital. Environmentalist, Gopal Krishna tells you that the problem of air pollution is a unique one. “Delhi’s smog is that the smoke from outside city is mixing with the pollution inside of the city. It is a rural and urban mixture — from construction, emission of harmful noxious gases and wood people use to cook and keep warm intensifies during  winter months.”

The problem in tackling the situation lies in the fact that there is absence of a single point authority to drive decision making. The Central Pollution Control Board is responsible for air pollution, but it is only a regulatory body. Second, intervention is a challenge because maintaining air quality is not a component of major programmes like smart city and Swachh Bharat, and often not even a part of mainstream policy making.

Third is the task of generating public awareness. Since pollutants are not visible, people are not conscious about it as, say, water. Also, the community is not open about the relation of air to health. Air is still not a national issue. It is limited to a few cities like Delhi so people resort to solutions like ‘leaving Delhi’. Fourth, is the absence of data, inadequate capacity to regulate thousands of sources of pollution and a lack of human and technological infrastructure for monitoring and control. Hence, there is need for strategy and direct technology interventions.

 Technologies to reduce pollution at its source are many. Applying these requires the Government to implement policies that support such technology. Examples of technologies to reduce air pollution also include use of lead-free gasoline, which allows the use of catalytic converters on vehicles’ exhaust systems. For trucks, buses and an increasing number of smaller vehicles that use diesel fuel, improving the quality of the diesel is another way to reduce air pollution at the source. More fuel-efficient vehicles like hybrid gas-electric vehicles, electric vehicles are another way forward. Policies that reduce motorised transport can also reduce air pollution in urban areas.

A research conducted by the Department of Environment Science, Delhi University, taking into account the APTI value of 20 plant species recommended that Azadirachta Indica (Neem), Ricinus Communis (Castor Bean), Prosopis Juliflora (Kabuli Kikar, Vilayati Babul), Dalbergia Sisoo (Sheesham) and Delonix Regia (Gulmohar) are the tolerant species and can be used for green belt planning.  “As tolerant species can play a vital role in absorption and detoxification of toxic air pollutants, our research work with students has computed APTI at different land use sites, for instance — traffic intersection, riverine, institutional and vegetated,” Dr Chirashee Ghosh, Senior Assistant Professor, Delhi University tells you.

Delhi has 20.8 per cent of tree cover area. Among the categories of tree C3 and C4 are considered good for cleaning the air. “Like human beings, plants also have a defence immune mechanism which helps to protect the plant and increases the pollution tolerance power and plant life,” Ghosh says and elaborates that the life of plant faces threat because of two type of pollution; dust pollution and gases (vehicular emission) pollution. “C4 plants are more efficient in photosynthesis and have a strong defence mechanism,” he says.

Only awareness and sensitivity will help citizens breathe easy.

Tips to Stay Safe

  • Walk or cycle for short distance commutes or to the neighborhood market. Plan and combine all your errands in one area or close by areas for one trip. Limit driving and make use of carpool.
  • Use public transport as much as possible for longer distances. If you have to use your vehicle keep it well maintained for efficient functioning with regular servicing to reduce harmful exhaust emissions and get pollution check done as required. Follow speed limits. Avoid buying diesel vehicle.
  • Avoid burning candles, dhoop or incense sticks at home or workplace.
  • Plant more trees. Limit the areas of bare soil by growing grass to reduce the amount of dust. Sprinkle water on exposed soil or construction sites regularly to reduce the generation of dust. Wet mop the floors at home or workplace.
  • Choose a place with least pollution levels when there is a choice

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