Diwali fog is warning for car capital draped in perpetual haze

Yet another Diwali turned out to be a smoky, ear-splitting celebration last week. The pollution control board monitoring the air quality levels on Diwali night found that the sulphur dioxide range was 35-114 microgram per cubic meter this year. Last Diwali, it was 20-88 microgram per cubic meter. With both the minimum and maximum levels of SO2 on the higher side, we are probably still breathing the toxic sulphur from the fireworks launched last Sunday.

As expected, smog followed soon after. The thick grey blanket that hung low over the city last few days left us gasping for breath. Scientists at the Met office attributed it to the Diwali fumes and the daily pollution that could not disperse due to calm weather conditions.

The government’s response was predictable. While there was no word on the rising Diwali pollution, officials first dismissed the smog as a weather phenomenon. Then, they blamed the neighbouring states for burning farm waste and thus polluting Delhi’s air.

In early November last year, when Delhi clocked 12 days of continuous smog, the Supreme Court intervened, extracting promises of reforms and regulations from the government. Our neighbours agreed not to burn their farm waste. The Delhi government warned of strict penalties for those who burned leaves and garbage, and stringent action against polluting vehicles entering the city. It also promised to put in place an air quality index on display boards, recommending motorists to use public transport and warning people about the ill-effects of smog.

But the promises were forgotten as soon as the sun came out. Satellite imagery from NASA shows stubble is still being burnt in farmlands across north India. But like dengue casualties and power lines tripping, the blame for this one can’t be so conveniently passed on to the neighbouring states. Delhi has to look within.

The capital’s biggest problem is its seven million vehicles. One in every 10 vehicles of India is registered in this city and the number is growing by 10% every year. So the advantages of turning the fleet of 100,000 buses, taxis and auto rickshaws to Compressed Natural Gas-mode in 2002 have been squandered. Today, the air pollution in Delhi is comparable to the pre-CNG days.

Surprisingly, the government didn’t have a clean-up plan till last year when the smog persisted for too long. It is clearly not short of ideas. For years, almost all expert studies commissioned by the government have recommended congestion tax and road space rationing. It does not matter if the cars are run on petrol or diesel. The sheer volume of private vehicles is choking our roads and lungs.

Technology upgrades and urban transportation planning can bring down air pollution levels that have grim consequences for human health. Only last week, Xinhuanet, the website of China’s official news agency, reported how an eight-year-old girl who lived near a busy road in the eastern province of Jiangsu became China’s youngest lung cancer patient, with doctors blaming air pollution for her illness. The hospital, however, denied the report later.

But the Xinhuanet report coincided with the choking smog enveloping the northeastern city of Harbin two weeks back, bringing flights and ground transport to a standstill and forcing schools to shut for several days. Cancer is now the leading cause of death in the smog-draped Beijing, a city with 5.67 million vehicles. The number of lung cancer patients per 100,000 people was 63.09 in 2011, compared with 39.56 registered in 2002, according to the Beijing Municipal Health Bureau, Xinhuanet reported on November 9. It quoted health experts with the Beijing Cancer hospital saying smoking was the top reason for the disease, followed by passive smoking and air pollution.

China’s environment department has declared a smog emergency, but Delhi, that sees similar air pollution levels as Beijing on most days, is yet to clear its clean-up plan as the state cabinet is still mulling over it. We may not expect great vision in this city of haze but this suffocation demands some urgency.


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