The stubble burning season is almost over, and Diwali has come and gone, but Delhi’s air quality took a sharp turn for the worse on Tuesday, highlighting the role played by weather and local sources of pollution that ensure the Capital’s air remains unhealthy through large parts of the year, with farm fires, especially from Punjab, and fireworks during Diwali, causing temporary spikes.
The city’s air quality index (AQI) on Tuesday settled at 379, in “very poor” zone, according to the 24-hour rolling average of Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) recordings at 4pm. On Monday, the AQI was in the same range but with a lower reading of 302. Government agencies forecast that the air quality could enter “severe” zone on Wednesday.
While an AQI of 201-300 is considered “poor”, a reading of 301-400 is in “very poor” zone, and associated with respiratory illnesses, especially in children and those exposed to the bad air. An AQI of 400-500 is considered “severe”, posing serious health risks.
Government data on farm fires and experts indicated that the current deterioration in Delhi’s air was largely due to weather conditions adverse to the dispersal of pollutants, and local pollution sources (such as road dust and construction dust, vehicular emissions and local garbage burning), reaffirming the argument that the root of the city’s annual ordeal goes beyond firecracker bursting on Diwali and the burning of crop stubble in neighbouring states — two of the factors widely cited behind grim AQI readings in October-November.
To be sure, the fires tip it over the edge into hazardous territory.
CPCB data showed that Delhi’s AQI has been on a decline over the past week. It was 274 on Sunday, 251 on Saturday, 296 on Friday, 283 on Thursday, and 211 on Wednesday.
VK Soni, head of the environment monitoring research centre of the India Meteorological Department (IMD), said that the fresh drop in air quality was mainly due to low wind speed (not conducive for the dispersal of pollutants) and high moisture content (conducive for the accumulation of pollutants).
“A western disturbance affecting the Western Himalayan region (from Monday)has had its impact on Delhi as well. Winds were easterly till (Tuesday)afternoon; they carried moisture. So increase in air pollution levels is due to local factors and a reduction in wind speed. The air quality may touch severe levels tomorrow (Wednesday). However, we expect an improvement from November 26, when the wind speed is likely to pick up after the passing of the western disturbance,” Soni said.
Radha Goyal, deputy director of the Indian Pollution Control Association (a non-governmental organisation), said that while stubble burning is indeed a contributor to Delhi’s pollution level, the city’s local sources cannot be ignored and need proper attention.
“The main local sources of air pollution in Delhi during winters are vehicular emissions, construction activities and waste burning. In this critical period, when weather is not favourable, we have to strictly enforce measures to control these local sources so that Delhi’s local sources are controlled,” Goyal said.
From November 5 -10, the Capital saw a spell of “severe” air days for six consecutive days. But the dispersal of pollution after Diwali was the fastest this year, compared to the last five years. The AQI went from “severe” to moderate within two days because of high wind speeds and rain in many parts of the city.
According to CPCB data, 189farm fires were reported on Monday and they contributed to 5% of Delhi’s pollution. This share was around 32% during the six-day spell of “severe” air earlier this month.
Balbir Singh Rajewal, president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, said that the burning of paddy stubble has ended in Punjab. “On most of the agriculture area in the state, wheat crop of the rabi season has been sown,” he said.
Krunesh Garg, member-secretary of the Punjab pollution control board, said only a “negligible number” of farm fires were being reported nowadays.“ Total fire cases (in the state) touching 76,000 is a cause of concern for us because it’s substantially more than last season’s (57,000) number. I want to highlight that number of cases when verified on ground were much less against that reported by the satellite,” he said.
Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director (research and advocacy) of think-tank Centre for Science and Environment, said that while Delhi, to some extent, has been successful in bending this season’s pollution curve, the levels are still around “60% higher” than the acceptable limits.
“There is no doubt that Delhi cannot solve its pollution problem alone because it shares a common airshed with states such as Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh etc., where pollution sources are unchecked compared to the Capital. But that being said, enforcement needs to improve a lot more. The enforcement agencies know exactly what they need to do when the air quality reaches a certain level; it is listed clearly under Grap (Graded Response Action Plan). All they need to do is ensure that the measures are enforced strictly,” Roychowdhury said.
In a significant move, the Union environment ministry brought in the Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas through an ordinance on October 29. Its objective is to implement a consolidated approach to monitoring, tackling and eliminating causes of air pollution in Delhi-NCR and adjoining areas. While doing so the Centre dissolved all ad-hoc committees and bodies created under court orders, including the Supreme Court-mandated Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA), which had been tasked with overseeing air pollution control in NCR since 1998.
M Kutty, chairperson of the new panel, and Arvind Nautiyal, joint secretary, environment ministry, and a full-time member of the commission, did not respond to answer HT’s calls on Tuesday.
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