An image released Monday morning by Nasa shows a grey fog shrouding across north India. Air quality experts inform us that this fog consists of a toxic mix of pollutants triggered by the huge numbers of firecrackers that were burnt by the public across our cities on Diwali night.
The System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) of the Ministry of Earth Science had warned that the air quality in the National Capital Region was expected to be severe post-Diwali but no one had expected that the Air Quality Index (AQI) would exceed such extreme limits.
The PM 10 levels had crossed 1,000 at 10 pm in the NCR region and at 2.30 am, it had crossed 1,600 which is sixteen times higher than the safe levels. However, according to the latest development, air quality in Noida has plummeted to 1,100 AQI. The PM.2 levels, whose size is a small fraction of the width of a human hair making them even more dangerous, had crossed 500. The WHO pegs the safe level of PM.2 at 25.
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This story was repeated across all the northern cities including Gwalior, Agra, Kanpur, Patna and Lucknow as is obvious by the fog captured by the Nasa satellite image. A combination of indiscriminate use of firecrackers, vehicular pollution, polluting factories and the burning of stubble by the farming community in Punjab, Haryana and NCR has converted north India into a veritable gas chamber.
Anand Vihar in the NCR continues to be the most polluted area of India during the last several months and has begun to report some of the highest incidence of respiratory diseases.
SAFAR had also sent out a warning that pollution levels this Diwali were expected to be much higher this year as compared to last year. Their stats had predicted that PM 2.5 levels in 2016 would be around 322 micrograms per cubic metre as compared to 217 micrograms on Diwali in 2015.
But even they had not anticipated this sharp increase. One of the key reasons for this has been the fact that wind speed levels have remained consistently low thereby making these pollutants hang low in the atmosphere. This creates a more dangerous situation because this is what people outdoor are going to inhale.
Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director of Centre of Science and Environment feels that given that both the India Meteorological Department and SAFAR had warned that air quality levels were going to get worse both prior and post Diwali, the government and especially the Ministries of Health and Environment should have issued health advisories urging people not to use crackers.
"The Delhi state government has pointed out that they have been raising this issue in their mohallah meetings but I believe, both the state and central government need to come up with a licensing policy to reduce the sale of firecrackers," she said.
She further urged the government to follow the Supreme Court guidelines which have asked to look into the chemical composition of the firecrackers.
"People think that since their use of firecrackers is restricted just for Diwali, these can hardly be described as health hazards forgetting that firecrackers are now being used for many social events including marriages. Firecrackers leave heavy metals and deadly chemicals in the air and these continue to remain in the atmosphere and then end up in our food chain and into our bodies. This is something the public must be made aware about," Chowdhury said, maintaining the importance of pure air should be integrated into the Swachh Bharat campaign.
"Even if a few thousand do not use firecrackers, the fact is that we have a population of 17 million living in the capital, and a huge number do continue with this unhealthy practice," she added.
Randeep Guleria, a pulmonary specialist at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, is very forceful in stating that "The worsening pollution scenario has seen an increase of heart and respiratory problems for Delhi citizens with the young and aged population being the worst hit."
"Recent studies confirm that increasing numbers of Delhi citizens face chronic inflammation of the lungs and PM 2.5 has also been found to be a major risk factor in heart diseases," added Guleria.
The medical fraternity has established a clear link between air pollution and rising mortality rates. Pollution is held responsible for 50 percent of heart attack cases.
Unicef released a study last week highlighting how 300 million children in the world are at risk because they breathe toxic air from which 220 million of these living in South Asia. The study attributes six lakh children dying from air pollution. Overall, seven million deaths every year are being attributed to air pollution.
Satyendra Jain, Minister of Health in the Delhi government, has spoken about putting up huge air purifiers in the major junctions in Delhi. Environmental experts question whether such a move can reduce the problem.
"Air purifiers will make a difference if the AQI is around 500 or 600 but if it is touching 1,600, there is no way air purifiers will work," said Sunite Narain who heads the Centre of Science and Environment.
"Half of the 252 cities in India have already crossed critically polluted levels," warns Anumita Roychowdhary, deputy director general, Centre for Science and Environment. "We need to declare a national emergency on air pollution and treat this problem on a war footing,"
The only silver lining is that some NGOs in Mumbai including Awaaz Foundation have helped create awareness about the need to desist from burning firecrackers. The result has paid off and this year saw a much quieter Mumbai. Similar outreach programs in other cities on the need to ban the use of firecrackers should help us breathe healthy air.