Crackdown in Capital on crackers as AQI stays in red zone

The average 24-hour air quality index (AQI) at 4pm was 314 on Wednesday, up from 303 a day earlier, with both readings in the “very poor” range.
The air quality in the national capital worsened Wednesday, even as Delhi Police flying squads fanned out across the city to crack down on the sale and use of crackers. (Bloomberg)
The air quality in the national capital worsened Wednesday, even as Delhi Police flying squads fanned out across the city to crack down on the sale and use of crackers. (Bloomberg)
Updated on Nov 04, 2021 04:33 AM IST
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BySoumya Pillai and Prawesh Lama, New Delhi

The air quality in the national capital worsened on Wednesday, stoking fears of a severe uptick in pollution levels on Diwali day amid concerns that widespread violations of the firecracker ban may plunge Delhi into a health emergency, even as Delhi Police flying squads fanned out across the city to crack down on the sale and use of crackers.

The average 24-hour air quality index (AQI) at 4pm was 314 on Wednesday, up from 303 a day earlier, with both readings in the “very poor” range.

Experts warned that emissions by firecrackers, if unchecked, could exacerbate already unfavourable meteorological conditions — including slow winds and below-normal temperatures, and the impact of stubble fires in neighbouring Haryana and Punjab.

On Wednesday alone, police teams across the city seized around 1,200 kg of firecrackers smuggled in from Dehradun and Gurugram, among others, and arrested at least six people for storing and selling the contraband. However, it was not immediately clear if there have been any arrests yet for bursting crackers in Delhi.

“Around 4.30pm on Wednesday, you could see a cloud of smoke and dust circling over northwest India, including Delhi, and Pakistan. Expect air quality to get worse in the region. The forecast says that the level of PM2.5 (particulate matter with diameter less than 2.5 micrometres) is likely to remain in the 120-250ug/m3 range,” said Pawan Gupta, a research scientist at the Goddard Earth Sciences Technology and Research (GESTAR), Universities Space Research Association.

In India, the acceptable 24-hour exposure to PM 2.5 is 60ug/m3.

An AQI between 301 and 400 is considered “very poor”, and one between 401 and 500 is “severe” — the point at which the Central Pollution Control Board’s (CPCB) pollution gauges max out. The city’s AQI breached the 300-mark on Tuesday for the first time this season.

In the backdrop of these warnings, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) and senior Delhi Police officers held a series of meetings to minimise the sale and use of firecrackers in the city.

The Delhi government in September this year — as it did in 2020 — ordered a blanket ban on the sale, use, and storage of all firecrackers till January 1 next year, citing their severe health effects, especially amid the pandemic and the toxic pollution levels. The ban goes a step further than a Supreme Court verdict in 2017 that banned all traditional crackers across the country but permitted barium salt-free “green crackers”.

CPCB data shows that Delhi recorded its most polluted Diwali day (October 31) in 2016, when the AQI touched 431 (up from 404 the previous day). Last year, despite a complete ban on firecrackers, an AQI of 414 (up from 339 a day earlier) made it the second most polluted Diwali in six years amid widespread violations.

To be sure, Diwali was celebrated later than usual last year — November 14 — a time when stubble fires are at their peak.

In a meeting with the sub-committee of the Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM) in the National Capital Region on Wednesday, representatives of the central weather office pointed out that while Delhi is likely to receive easterly winds till November 4, they will mostly be sluggish till Saturday and not conducive to disperse pollutants in the city’s air. After that, winds are likely to switch direction and blow in from the northwest, bringing in toxic smoke from stubble fires in the farmlands of Haryana and Punjab.

The India Meteorological Department (IMD), however, predicted that pollution levels are unlikely to hit “severe” levels yet based on weather conditions.

“The AQI is likely to deteriorate marginally on November 4, and is likely to reach the upper limits of the ‘very poor’ category on November 5 and 6. Around this time, the winds will switch to northwesterly, which will also bring smoke from stubble fires from Punjab and Haryana. Even with higher emissions, the model predictions do not indicate the air quality reaching the severe zone. Strong winds are forecasted for November 7,” VK Soni, head of IMD’s environment and research department, told the CAQM’s sub-committee.

Prashant Gargava, chairperson of the CAQM sub-committee on the implementation of the Graded Response Action Plan (Grap) and member-secretary of the CPCB, said the panel has not suggested any additional measures to curb pollution levels, since they are not expected to hit severe levels. The sub-committee has, however, asked agencies to implement measures listed under Grap’s “very poor” category, which was implemented on October 28.

And even as the district deputy commissioners of police (DCP) and DPCC coordinate their efforts to tackle the pollution menace, the police are also working with sub-divisional magistrates and sharing information on the illegal sale of firecrackers.

HT on Wednesday reported that a black market for firecrackers had sprung up in the Capital, which could allow people to evade the restrictions.

Delhi Police officers said they had a two-pronged approach to crack down on cracker-bursting this Diwali season: To coordinate with residents across the city and inform them about the guidelines of the ban, and to have in place flying squads within a police station’s jurisdiction to spot violations and prosecute violators.

“One team will work as a flying squad to act on any information where people are violating the ban on crackers. The strength of the team will depend on the population of the police station area. They will be especially active in the evening,” said a senior police officer, who asked not to be named.

Meanwhile, Delhi environment minister Gopal Rai urged people to not link religion and cracker-bursting.

““There are many issues to play politics with... but my request is to let people breathe,” said Rai.

BS Vohra, president of the East Delhi RWA Joint Front — an umbrella body of resident welfare groups — said that the police and other agencies need to build awareness among residents.

“Change has to be behavioural; if that doesn’t happen then these bans won’t be successful. Along with penalising, the police needs to work on sensitising people and tell them the impact of cracker-bursting,” he said.

Delhi Police commissioner Rakesh Asthana said, “Police are prepared and made all arrangements to implement the order. Detailed guidelines to follow the orders have already been issued.”

Last year on Diwali, the police seized at least 1,206kg of firecrackers and arrested 850 for their store or use. This year, in the run-up to Diwali, police have seized over 3,000kg of smuggled firecrackers and arrested at least 12.

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Saturday, November 27, 2021