The massive rise in air pollution in Delhi on the evening of Diwali shows that the judicial ban on sale of firecrackers is not enough, and action is required on multiple fronts to tackle the noxious haze

Diwali firecrackers light up a hazy sky (Photo by Soumyajit Pramanick)

Diwali firecrackers light up a hazy sky (Photo by Soumyajit Pramanick)

This Diwali was supposed to be different in Delhi. It wasn’t. Although the Supreme Court banned the sale of firecrackers before the festival and the dust from construction was low due to a depressed realty market, the peak pollution in India’s capital shot up in the evening, particularly the tiny dust particles that damage the lungs.

In the days before Diwali, you could see stars, dimly for sure, but stars nevertheless. The firecrackers were also few to begin with but they started at around seven in the evening, and continued, and continued, and continued. By 10 p.m, there was a pall hanging over the city.

The levels of PM10 and PM2.5 rose sharply after 7 p.m. on Thursday, although they were lower than last year, when the thick haze led to a public health emergency and the government had to close down schools for a few days. At 11 p.m, PM10 level was 1,179 microgrammes per cubic metre (mpcm) and PM2.5 level was 878 mpcm at the RK Puram monitoring station of the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC).

Particulate matter of 10 and 2.5 micrometres or less are particularly dangerous as they settle deep in the lungs and are able to enter the blood stream, leading to a host of respiratory and other problems. The safe level of PM10 is below 100 mpcm and for PM2.5 the satisfactory level is below 60 mpcm.

Multiple factors

However, the levels of particulate matter was considerably lower than in 2016, when they were as much as eight times the satisfactory levels, compared with two and a half times this year. The ban of sale of firecrackers may have been partially responsible by there were other factors at play as well.

There had been strong winds in the days before Diwali, as a result of which the smoke from farm stubble burning in neighbouring Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh did not settle over the capital. The boom in building construction of the past few years was absent as well; the property market has stumbled in the wake of slowing economic growth in India.

It is far from easy to change cultural practices, especially long established ones, such as the use of firecrackers during Diwali, which have been intertwined for centuries now. But given that they are among few aspects of air pollution directly in control of the residents of Delhi — the vehicular pollution is hard to limit, the smoke from fields being burnt in neighbouring states is not something Delhi can do much about, and the pollution created by the building boom that is part of the Indian growth story — it is still difficult to believe that there is little being done to voluntarily control this.

Hazy morning

Citizen of the capital woke up on Friday to a hazy morning as weak winds failed to dissipate the pollution released in the air on Diwali. The levels of PM10 in Delhi on Friday morning was ‘poor’ and that of PM2.5 was ‘very poor’, according to the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) of the Ministry of Earth Sciences.

Delhi’s air quality index (AQI) was calculated at 326, which is classified as ‘very poor’ by the National Air Quality Index (NAQI). The air quality is expected to remain ‘very poor’ on Saturday as well, with PM10 at 358 and PM2.5 at 216, SAFAR has forecast.

The concentration of tiny dust particles were at dangerously high levels at RK Puram, a residential neighbourhood in Delhi, during Diwali. (Source: National Air Quality Index)

The concentration of tiny dust particles was at dangerously high levels at RK Puram, a residential neighbourhood in Delhi, during Diwali. (Source: National Air Quality Index)

Air pollution in Delhi is due to a combination of various factors. According to a report commissioned by the Delhi government, the single largest contributor to air pollution is road dust — accounting for 56% of PM10 and 38% of PM2.5. Vehicles add another 9% to the PM10 pollution, and 20% to the PM2.5 pollution. Domestic fuel burning adds another 12%. It is hard to say to what extent the ban of sale of firecracker this year has improved the situation.

See: Gasping Delhi awaits Diwali pollution explosion

To tackle the high air pollution in autumn and winter, the government’s Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority (EPCA) on October 17 started implementing a Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) for the National Capital Region that includes satellite towns such as Noida, Gurgaon and Faridabad.

As part of the response, the Badarpur thermal power plant was shut sown, diesel generators were banned till March next year and hundreds of brick kilns have been ordered to shut operations. These are measures under the ‘very poor’ and ‘severe’ categories under GRAP and will remain in force till March 15.

This is the first year that the plan is being implemented after it was notified by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in January 2017. The GRAP entails taking specific steps that depend on the concentration levels of pollutants. Based on AQI that shows air pollution levels, various measures are taken, such as shutting down of brick kilns and coal-based power plants, mechanised cleaning of roads and sprinkling of water, stopping the use of diesel and kerosene generator sets, stopping construction activities, regulating entry of truck traffic into Delhi (except essential goods), and removing polluting vehicles from the road, among others.

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