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Delhi's toxic air is now a perennial problem; experts say afforestation, controlling emissions key to curbing pollution

There is a stark reality facing the residents of Delhi. The phenomenon of air pollution is no longer confined to the winter months but is a reality they have to live with round the year. As the summers are getting more intense and the frequency of rains is showing a marked decline, air quality levels are taking a beating.

This dreadful phenomenon is not confined to the NCR region. A pall of dust emanating from western India and the Thar desert has spread across north India. The hills of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, dotted with beautiful hill stations of Nainital, Shimla, Mussorie and Dehradun, have found themselves enveloped in the haze for the last four days. A thunderstorm brought down temperatures on Thursday evening but was not able to remove the dust. It was only when another shower took place on Friday morning across the hills that the dust dissipated.

In the NCR region, the PM10 levels shot up beyond the emergency levels, hovering close to 800 micrograms. This spike in pollution levels across north India saw even healthy people complaining of difficulty in breathing and tightness in the chest. For those suffering from existing respiratory diseases, the combination of extreme heat, high humidity and high PM levels had particularly negative effects. The medical fraternity has advised people to stay indoors.

If this double whammy of heat and dust was not bad enough, Delhites have been witness to Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and company engaging in a sit-in protest at the L-G’s residence for the last five days.

 Delhis toxic air is now a perennial problem; experts say afforestation, controlling emissions key to curbing pollution

Representational image. AP

These toxic air levels have prompted Kejriwal to write to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking for his intervention to stop the 'strike’ by the IAS officers so that he and his team of ministers can address the issue of pollution.

The Central Pollution Control Board's (CPCB) air quality data that was released last week shows that the months of March, April and May show very poor air quality levels. All the NCR cities including Bhiwadi, Gurugram, Noida and Ghaziabad show 'poor’, 'very poor’ and 'severe’ air days. East Delhi’s Anand Vihar recorded PM10 levels of over 929. By and large, the CPCB air quality index is way beyond the 500- mark.

Experts say that the CPCB and other governmental agencies will have to come up with a plan to control pollution during the summer months as well. In fact, the authorities will have to create a plan for the whole year.

It was with this in mind that an emergency meeting was called on Thursday. The meet was chaired by Delhi Lt Governor Anil Baijal along with PWD, DMRC, DPCC, forest department and EPCA officials who prepared a list of measures to control dust pollution. The thrust of the meeting was the need to prepare a strategy that takes into account the changing rainfall scenario and the rising summer temperatures.

With decreased winter rain, the soil in summer becomes loose. This has contributed to the increasing dust storms in north India.

This phenomenon took place in 2014, when the winer rains had been few and far between. But this year, the deteriorating weather has been market by violent dust storms and lightning strikes that have killed over 125 people and injured many more. Out of these, 111 people died in Uttar Pradesh alone. These violent dust storms destroyed thousands of homes and displaced hundreds of trees across the northern states.

Met experts blame this freakish thunderstorm activity to high temperatures and an unstable atmosphere.

While some forecasters have described these thunderstorms as being 'freak accidents,’ there are others who attribute this to climate change, which they believe will cause more storms of increasing intensity to strike in the future. High temperatures across Rajasthan and a cyclonic circulation over Haryana saw air being pushed upwards to form storm clouds.

The Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology has issued repeated warnings that that the duration of dry spells in the country will rise. While the average annual rainfall will remain the same, the frequency of heavy downpours will increase. This has been the trend in the last twenty years. Nothing illustrated this better than the Uttarakhand floods in 2013.

IITM experts warn that one of the factors that contributed to the air pollution spike has been the rapid denudation of forests in and around the NCR. The Aravalli mountains with their forests protected the NCR and Delhi from the dust of Rajasthan.

"Increasing concretisation and the cutting down of forests has contributed to the present situation. We are facing an ecological crisis. Unless we come up with a comprehensive strategy to preserve our ecological resources which help provide water and livelihood security, we will see an intensification of air pollution," said Himanshu Thakkar, who heads SANDRP.

Another noted environmentalist Manoj Misra, who heads the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, said, "While this plume of dust spread over north India is transnational and a sure sign of changing climate, I would like to point out that we need to go to the root of the problem...The first week of June generally used to see pre-monsoon showers. There have been none so far, just as there were no winter rains. All the tributaries of our rivers are dry. We seem to forget that our rivers are made by their tributaries, and water bodies play a key role in curbing air pollution."

Misra went on to state, "Solutions being provided by the government are all cosmetic in nature. Under the present circumstances, the ministry of environment should have been the most powerful ministry in the country. However, it only appears to be concerned with ease of doing business. In India, concretisation is the latest name for development."

A study conducted by ISRO in 2009 showed that a quarter of India has become a desert and degradation of agricultural areas will become a severe problem in the years to come.

These findings were seconded by the then environment minister Prakash Javadekar who said, "Land is becoming barren, degradation is happening. A lot of areas are on the verge of becoming deserts. However, this can be stopped."

It can indeed be stopped, but to do so, air pollution mitigation should be the focus of the environmental ministry’s efforts.

This is a man-made catastrophe. Air pollution spikes are the result of increasing emissions from vehicles and industry. Each city needs to create green barriers which will stop dust laden winds. Taking care of our water bodies and our forests holds the key to ending these pollution spikes, and this should be the focus of both the state and central government.

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Updated Date: Jun 15, 2018 19:12:30 IST

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