Delhi, adjoining areas gasp for breath as Punjab, Haryana govts fail to prevent stubble burning; environmentalists decry apathy

  • The thick, smoky haze hanging over the National Capital Region has led to a sudden rise in cases of respiratory illness, breathing difficulty, itchy throats and watery eyes.

  • The trapping of pollutants which has been more due to the existing weather conditions has made Delhi a veritable gas chamber.

  • The data indicates that the spike in air pollution has been due to farm fires in Punjab, Haryana and adjoining regions of Delhi.

Despite assurances from the government and precautions taken ahead of Diwali, the air quality in Delhi on Wednesday turned out to be in the 'severe' category. There are warnings that it may get worse if stringent measures are not taken immediately.

The thick, smoky haze hanging over the National Capital Region has led to a sudden rise in cases of respiratory illness, breathing difficulty, itchy throats and watery eyes. The present situation has compelled the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to take a call on whether additional preemptive measures need to be taken in order to save the air quality from deteriorating further. A task force headed by the CPCB called an emergency meeting on Wednesday to discuss the additional measures needed under the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP), besides the existing measures on the ground.

 Delhi, adjoining areas gasp for breath as Punjab, Haryana govts fail to prevent stubble burning; environmentalists decry apathy

Representational image. AP

However, environment experts believe the existing conditions represent a cumulative result of poor regulation and mismanagement in implementing preemptive measures by government agencies ahead of this season and on the day of Diwali. The claims made by the government of having a clean Diwali seem to have proved hollow.

The failure to strictly implement deadlines for lighting crackers on the day of Diwali, the widespread use of banned 'non-green' crackers, lack of restrictions on stubble burning and open dumping of construction and demolition waste have been identified as the major 'culprits' that have led to the present situation in Delhi and the NCR. "The deadline for lighting crackers wasn't followed on the day of Diwali and fireworks were used till late at night. In the name of green crackers, poor quality and banned products were used in full swing. The entire system to control pollution ahead of this season and on Diwali day was poorly regulated and mismanaged by respective agencies," Ravi Agarwal, director of the NGO, Toxic Link told Firstpost.

Free use of banned crackers; deadline flouted

Ahead of Diwali, the Delhi Police had issued an advisory on 'Dos and Don’ts' through advertisements and by issuing guidelines to Resident Welfare Associations. While the emphasis was on the use of reduced emission firecrackers (green crackers), the window for bursting crackers was between 8 pm and 10 pm on Diwali. There was a ban on the sale and use of banned items. However, it wasn’t followed across the city.

"There was rampant use of traditional firecrackers, which have been banned and it created a lot of air and sound pollution on Diwali evening. The deadline for crackers wasn't followed and [the use of crackers] went on even after midnight," said Pavitra Sarkar, a resident of Tughlaqabad in South Delhi. Delhi-based environment expert Anand Arya said, "I have always maintained that there is no such thing as 'green crackers'. Under the garb of green crackers, banned items were sold and used by people blatantly. The deadline was breached as well. The result is before us and now we're unable to breathe."

Stubble burning made air pollution spike

The Delhi government, in its statement, has quoted data from the NASA satellite, which mentions that stubble plume from the northwest regions has become one of the significant contributors to Delhi’s pollution. The government statement reads: "The effective stubble fire counts in Haryana and Punjab have increased from 1,654 to 2,577 during the past 24 hours, which is a matter of extreme concern for the residents of Delhi. The city (Delhi) is going through a bad period with reference to ambient air quality after celebrating one of the cleanest Diwalis in last few years."

According to the Centre's pollution forecasting agency — System of Air Quality and Weather Forecast and Research (SAFAR), there is a spike in the percentage contribution of crop residue burning in the PM 2.5 (fine particulate matter with diameter less than 2.5 micrometers) levels in Delhi's air. PM 2.5 is extremely hazardous as it not only affects the lungs but can also enter the bloodstream.

The data indicates that the spike in air pollution has been due to farm fires in Punjab, Haryana and adjoining regions of Delhi.

“Nearly 25 percent of Delhi’s PM 2.5 came from stubble burning. The number is likely to go up to 29%,” the SAFAR forecast said.

“This is another big failure of the government. Despite knowing the major sources of pollution, why did they fail to take precautions ahead of the season? It’s the responsibility of the government to understand the problems of the farmers and approach them and thereby help them in the disposal of stubble through alternative methods. Unfortunately, it wasn’t done this year again,” said Agarwal.

Existing weather condition

The trapping of pollutants which has been more due to the existing weather conditions has made Delhi a veritable gas chamber.

Forecast warns that in some parts of Delhi, the air quality may get from ‘severe’ to ‘very poor’, while in other parts it would remain ‘severe’.

“The wind needs to improve. At present, a dip in temperature and no wind have resulted in trapping of pollutants. If the meteorological condition doesn’t change, the pollution will go up. The wind has to improve,” Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director and head of the air pollution and clean transportation programme at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) told Firstpost.

What’s the way out?

The experts strongly feel that there is an urgent need for stronger action and implementation of GRAP.

According to CSE, as we go deeper into winter, the occurrence of episodic smogs can upset and skew the overall winter pollution trend. This demands stronger and continuous action in Delhi and across NCR to reduce the overall pollution.

“Delhi needs a long-term systemic action to eliminate dirty industrial fuels, improve public transport and minimise waste burning and dust generation for a sustained impact. Otherwise, Delhi-NCR will plunge into a prolonged smog episode this winter too,” said Roychowdhury.

The enforcement and implementation of the action plan is another area of concern for environmental experts, which they argue, is often not completely executed.

“It had been the government’s failure not to implement the suggestions given by the EPCA. Had it been honestly followed, pollution would have declined by at least 70 percent. Now it needs to be seen how successfully and up to what extent the Delhi government executes the action plan this winter,” said Arya.

The Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) – a Central government committee constituted for the NCR has already identified every source of pollution, percentage of pollutants in the air, the solution to the problem and execution plan for Delhi and NCR. However, experts believe that it had been the government’s inability to implement the same that has turned pollution in Delhi into a menace.

“As decisions have been taken and orders issued by government agencies, the need is to have stringent enforcement and implementation of the same. Agencies must ensure that emergency action on industrial pollution, waste burning and dust generators with strong deterrence and zero tolerance across Delhi and NCR be implemented stringently,” said Roychowdhury.

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Updated Date: Oct 31, 2019 15:36:41 IST