Delhi’s air pollution is more than a set of mind-boggling data for those with respiratory ailments or who have a family member suffering from one. On chilly mornings, you wake up gasping for breath. The air smells of charcoal. The skies appear grey with haze. You read some articles in the morning papers on the air quality. In Delhi, that is all you get in terms of a smog alert.
There is round-the-clock tracking by pollution control bodies monitoring air quality at 14 locations in the city. Reading this data, Hindustan Times on Saturday reported how pollution had reached toxic levels this weekend. In RK Puram, particulate matter 2.5 or PM2.5 peaked to 16 times the safe limit.
The US embassy’s Air Quality Index, which converts PM2.5 data and places them on a scale of 0 to 500, was 274 in Chanakyapuri at 9pm — falling in the ‘very unhealthy’ 201300 range, according to the US standards.
The farm stubble burnt across north India to clear land for cultivation coupled with Delhi’s vehicular pollution produced deadly air laced with particles fine enough to sit deep in lungs and blood tissues. Constant exposure to this could cause stroke or even lung cancer, the doctors warned.
In any other city, these suffocating times would have demanded urgent action.
Last year, Malaysia and Singapore kicked off a diplomatic row with Indonesia when fumes from its illegal land-clearing fires in palm oil plantations choked the other two neighbouring countries. The dispute ended only after the Indonesian president apologised to the people of Malaysia and Singapore.
But our government could not even get the states and its own departments sit together and draw up a plan to regulate farm fires.
Last month, the National Green Tribunal censured the central and the state governments for their failure to stop burning of farm stubble, asking for a comprehensive plan by November 10.
In fact, the government didn’t even have a clean-up strategy till two years ago when Delhi clocked 12 days of continuous smog.
The Supreme Court intervened, extracting a five-year plan that included introduction of cleaner emission norms in Delhi, higher parking rates, improvement in public transport, congestion taxes, road space rationing, and putting up air quality index on display boards, recommending motorists to use public transport and warning people about the ill effects of smog.
In election mode, the state government sat on the plan till it was recently revived by the Lieutenant Governor. He has asked for a timeline and budgetary allocations for each of these projects.
While regulatory measures and sprucing up public transport are measures that require time, money and a lot of political will, putting in place smog alert that help identify critically-polluted areas is an emergency measure Delhi can’t put off.
World over, cities issue smog and haze alerts almost instantly when pollution reaches alar ming levels. Beijing has a colour-coded smog alert system since October 2013.
A yellow alert prompts increased road cleaning and spraying of water at construction sites. The orange level, sounded out last on October 19, advises schools to stop all outdoor sporting activities and closing down of factories in the vicinity.
During red alert, the highest level, schools are shut, vehicles are kept off the road, and the government runs extra buses and extends subway timings. In fact, the Chinese government faces criticism for not declaring red alert even when the air quality deteriorates to dangerous levels.
Paris authorities opened up their public transport system to everyone for free for three days when thick smog enveloped the city last year.
In June this year, the Chile government urged soccer fans to refrain from traditional barbecues during the FIFA World Cup because the clouds of smoke from charred meat were worsening the capital’s smog, Bloomberg reported.
Most of these cities use their air quality indexes as indicators of health risk.
A smog watch not only warns vulnerable people to take precautions, it raises awareness about the pollution levels, forcing specific and immediate action from authorities.
It is time our governments come clean. We have a right to know the quality of air we breathe.