Shrouded in smog

As Delhi gasps for breath again, toxic pollution has spread wings to emerge as the elephant in the room.

By Author  |  Aditya Chaturvedi  |  Published: 11th Nov 2017  11:58 pm

A dense cluster of smog cloaking vast tracts of the National Capital Region in the past few days has turned Delhi into the most polluted city in the world and a veritable gas chamber. On November 8, the PM 10 level in Delhi shot through the roof to cross 1,000-plus at many places, as per data of the Delhi Pollution Control Committee.

On the World Air Quality Index, at least three localities in Delhi showed an alarming 999 of PM 10 — RK Puram, ITO, and Punjabi Bagh. The PM 2.5 readings were found to be 800-900. Of the NCR territories, Faridabad fared the worst at 890, while Gurgaon was around 400.

Pollution is measured on the basis of Particulate Matter (PM), which is the sum of all solid and liquid particles, many of which are dangerous, suspended in air. Two particle sizes – PM10 (particulate matter 10 micrometers or less in diameter) and PM2.5 (particulate matter 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter) – are observed.

For a clearer understanding, the PM 2.5 level of Delhi on normal days is around 122 and of Beijing is 85. As a whole, Delhi recorded an average PM 10 volume of 260 in 2016, which was four times above the safe level. Pollution level up to 60 is considered safe, while anything beyond 200 is considered very poor.

A reading greater than 400 is considered severe and may cause respiratory impact even on healthy people, and serious health impacts on people with lung/heart disease. The health impacts may be experienced even during light physical activity. Now imagine what would be the dreadful impact of 999!

On November 7, the particulate matter (PM 2.5) level in Delhi reached 710 –- 11 times more than the recommended safe limit by WHO – and the Indian Medical Association declared it a medical emergency.

The ban on the sale of firecrackers during Diwali kept pollution in check but the burning of stubble in neighbouring Punjab and Haryana has raised pollution levels. These fires, along with car exhaust, construction dust, factory emissions and burning of garbage combined with low temperatures and low wind speeds, have made Delhi toxic. The Central Pollution Control Board has put the city in the ‘severe’ category, its the highest level.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said that his government had written to Punjab and Haryana demanding an end to crop burning there. “All of us together have to find a (solution) to this,” he tweeted, adding that the city becomes a “gas chamber for almost a month” every year.

Experts say exposure to such high concentrations of PM 2.5 is equivalent to smoking more than two packs of cigarettes a day. A study by the Lancet medical journal stated that illnesses resulting from pollution claimed the lives of 2.5 million Indian people in 2015.

Stubble Burning

Recent satellite imagery of stubble burning from October 27-November 7, released by Nasa, very clearly establishes stubble burning in the agrarian belts of Punjab and Haryana as the main reason behind the drastic spike in pollution levels this time.

The set of images released by Nasa’s EOSDIS Worldview platform — which allows a user to interactively browse global satellite imagery within hours of it being acquired — throws light on stubble burning trends and patterns. The data shows that crop burning intensified in the latter half of October and early November, and was mainly concentrated in Punjab.

Stubble – or the leftover agrarian waste – is burnt by farmers of Punjab and Haryana after the harvesting is done. Burying the waste or vermicomposting it to make manure – as is done by farmers in many areas of Uttar Pradesh – is undoubtedly environmentally friendly and a better option, but it is also time-consuming and requires arduous labour. With crop rotation and two harvesting seasons a year nowadays, farmers have to clear the waste within a period of just 15 days, so they look for the most cost-effective method which also has the benefit of being least time-consuming.

Since mid-October 2017, smoke from crop fires in Punjab and Haryana is blowing across northern India and Pakistan. With the coming of cooler weather in November, the smoke mixes with fog, dust, and industrial pollution to form a particularly thick haze. The lack of wind, which usually helps disperse air pollution, further compounds the problem for several days in November.

On November 7, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on Nasa’s Aqua satellite captured thick haze and fog blanketing the region.

What is to be done

It is an oversimplification to pin the entire onus on farmers and hold them culpable without understanding the complexities at play here or why the farmer prefers burning stubble over other traditional waste disposal methods.

The advent of technology, mechanisation of agriculture and introduction of the high-yield variety of seeds has boosted agricultural production, but at the same time, the use of mechanised thrashers and harvesters leave long-standing stems in the field, which has made large-scale incineration almost a necessity.

The way forward is to make an outreach to the farmers, raise awareness about health hazards of stubble burning and incentivise other alternative agrarian waste disposal methods.

Technologies like precision farming can go a long way in making practices like stubble burning obsolete and keeping the environment clean. For instance, when rice is ready to be reaped, a tractor or a harvester would collect the grain; a spreader distributes the straw that remains on the ground and the Happy Seeder drills into the land to seed the wheat. And subsequently, there would be no need to burn.

It would require active planning, coordination, and execution involving both the government and non-governmental organisations in the agrarian sector. But before that, the first step is to acknowledge the acute severity of this problem and not find recourse in negligently condoning it or paying lip service.

There seems no respite on the horizon as advisories are being issued to avoid going outdoors. Air pollution has become the elephant in the room and nothing short of permanent, concrete steps and a determined will to act upon it with concerted efforts would help.


World Air Quality Index

As of today, Delhi is the most polluted city on the World Air Quality Index (AQI). The only others which scored the same alarming 999 in PM 10 were Merzifon in Turkey and the ghost city of Eerduosi in China. Ardahan in Turkey was next at 890. On an annual basis, Delhi ranks 11th on the WHO list of almost 3,000 towns and cities in 103 countries. The AQI is a Beijing-based project that fetches real-time data from various organisations and air pollution monitoring stations.

Pollution kills the most

Environmental pollution — from filthy air to contaminated water — is killing more people every year than all war and violence in the world. More than smoking, hunger or natural disasters. More than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. Pollution kills 9 million a year and costs $4.6 trillion

One out of every six premature deaths in the world in 2015 — about 9 million — could be attributed to disease from toxic exposure, according to a major study released in the Lancet medical journal. The financial cost from pollution-related death, sickness and welfare is equally massive, the report says, costing some $4.6 trillion in annual losses — or about 6.2% of the global economy. The study marks the first attempt to pull together data on disease and death caused by all forms of pollution combined.

Even the conservative estimate of 9 million pollution-related deaths is one-and-a-half times higher than the number of people killed by smoking, three times the number killed by AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined, more than six times the number killed in road accidents, and 15 times the number killed in war or other forms of violence, according to GBD tallies.

One out of every four premature deaths in India in 2015, or some 2.5 million, was attributed to pollution. China’s environment was the second deadliest, with more than 1.8 million premature deaths, or one in five, blamed on pollution-related illness, the study found. Several other countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, North Korea, South Sudan and Haiti also see nearly a fifth of their premature deaths caused by pollution.

“What people don’t realise is that pollution does damage to economies. People who are sick or dead cannot contribute to the economy. They need to be looked after — which is also costly. There is this myth that finance ministers still live by, that you have to let industry pollute or else you won’t develop,” said Richard Fuller, head of the global toxic watchdog Pure Earth and a contributor to the report.

The World Bank in April declared that reducing pollution, in all forms, would now be a global priority. And in December, the United Nations will host its first pollution conference. – AP