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Delhi’s smog an indication that the worst is yet to come

The worst smog in 17 years that choked Delhi on Wednesday was an indication of what’s coming this winter if the political class fails to act on time.

delhi Updated: Nov 04, 2016 10:30 IST
HT Correspondent
Children on their way to school on a smoggy morning, in New Delhi.
Children on their way to school on a smoggy morning, in New Delhi.(Sushil Kumar/HT Photo)

The worst smog in 17 years that choked Delhi on Wednesday was an indication of what’s coming this winter if the political class fails to act on time.

Pollution levels on Wednesday were 62.7% higher than the cracker-fuelled Diwali night -- forcing some schools to shut and curtail outdoor activities of kids.

But so far, there is no sign of the much-needed dramatic action to stop the blanket of haze that enveloped the entire national capital region, putting children and the elderly at risk.

Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia had on Wednesday announced measures such as sprinkling of water on roads, open air purification at five locations and a mist fountain as pollution abatement measures.

Experts termed these as tokenism.

A day later, environment minister Anil Madhav Dave had nothing much to offer except putting the onus of cleaning Delhi’s air on state governments and reiterating what his predecessor Prakash Javadekar had said in 2015 -- the Centre will prepare short, medium and long-term action plan that states will implement.

In most cities around the world, including Beijing, pollution levels as high as Delhi’s would have meant a red alert, mandating closing down of schools and factories and taking cars off the road.

The international norm is that an alert is issued when the Air Quality Index is more than 300 for two consecutive days.

Read| Delhi’s pollution levels higher early morning; joggers, children at most risk

In Delhi, the AQI has been more than 300 micrograms in cubic meter of air for all four days of this week. It crossed 1,500 at some locations covered by haze on Wednesday night.

The AQI was 393 and 450 on Monday and Tuesday, respectively.

“This demands emergency response to protect the vulnerable – those suffering from respiratory and heart diseases and children. The government should aggressively inform all and advise them to stay indoors and avoid outdoor exercises,” said Anumita Roy Chowdhury of the Centre for Science and Environment.

In effect, Delhi is facing the same pollution levels that existed in the late 1990s before CNG replaced diesel in public buses. The smog in 1999 would have been mixed with NOx and SO2, though it is worse now with increasing concentration of deadlier particulate matters in the air.

Citizens haven’t heard anything substantial from the governments except hollow promises. Policy interventions are required to combat such emergencies and it is not a difficult guess for anyone on what they should be doing.

There is enough scientific data to suggest that vehicles, whose number has more than tripled in the last five years to 8.9 million, are one of the biggest contributors to toxicity in Delhi’s air. In 1975, vehicles’ contribution to the air pollution was just 2.35% and in next 40 years, it rose to about 60%.

In winter, stubble burning and Diwali pollution overtakes vehicular pollution.

The government needs to put a restriction on registration of new vehicles and ensure those older than 10-15 years are moved out. A twin policy intervention of a congestion charge on entering busy commercial hubs and a reliable public transport system as alternative to personal vehicles are also needed to reduce congestion on roads.

The road space in NCR has not kept pace with the vehicle population, resulting in higher congestion on roads and increasing pollutant concentration, especially during winter when poor wind speed slows down dispersal rate.

Delhi needs to develop a green corridor around the city -- which existed before new Gurgaon and Faridabad came up -- to trap dust particles and pollutants coming along with western winds. Zero tolerance for violation of dust management rules at construction sites is also needed.

Air pollution has to be controlled at the local level as each place has specific problems. The cause of high air pollution in Rohini is the Bawana industrial area but RK Puram is trapped between two ring roads having very high vehicular movement.

Similarly, industries in Ghaziabad and the inter-state bus terminus contribute to dangerously high pollution levels in Anand Vihar.

Rise in air pollution in places such as Rohini and Dwarka is recent as till the mid-2000s. Earlier only busy Central and South Delhi areas were high air pollution zones.

Project director, ministry of earth science’s system of air quality weather forecasting and research (SAFAR), Gufran Beig, told HT that Wednesday’s smog was because of a change in wind direction, re-directing smoke from farm fields in Punjab and Haryana to Delhi.

The situation may worsen in coming days as weather experts said the period between mid-October and December is particularly bad as pollutants doesn’t get sucked up into the atmosphere.

Read| Delhi, learn to clear the air: How five world cities got rid of smog