Air pollution shot up in some northern towns last year despite lockdown

Published on Jan 14, 2021 05:49 PM IST

The analysis by the Centre for Science and Environment suggests air pollution levels spiked in certain parts of the Indo-Gangetic plains mainly because of a combination of reopening of the economy after the nationwide lockdown and adverse meteorology in winter.

Straw and stubble burning by farmers are a major cause of air pollution in north India.(HT FILE PHOTO)
Straw and stubble burning by farmers are a major cause of air pollution in north India.(HT FILE PHOTO)
ByJayashree Nandi

A new analysis has found that air pollution increased in small towns and cities outside Delhi and NCR in the Indo-Gangetic Plain region last year.

Even though the average PM 2.5 levels for summer and monsoon months last year is considerably lower than in 2019, winter pollution levels increased in Punjab and Haryana (north of NCR) leading to an increase in their annual average PM 2.5 levels.

Bigger cities and towns including Delhi recorded a significant reduction in annual PM 2.5 concentrations during the pandemic year. Delhi for example recorded an almost 13% improvement in 2020 compared to 2019.

The analysis by the Centre for Science and Environment suggests air pollution levels spiked in certain parts of the Indo-Gangetic plains mainly because of a combination of reopening of the economy after the national lockdown (March 25 to May 31 and phased reopening till December) and adverse meteorology in winter.

Several bigger cities have witnessed a reduction in annual PM 2.5 levels, smaller towns and cities have recorded an increase: Fatehabad in northern Haryana is the worst performer with 35% increase from 2019 level. It is followed by Bhatinda at 14%; Agra 9%; Khanna 7%; Mandi Gobindgarh 6%; Moradabad 5.5% and Kurukshetra recorded a 1% increase.

Sirsa recorded a 44% decrease in PM 2.5 levels; Varanasi 31%; Gaya 27%; Muzaffarpur 13%; Delhi 13% and Hisar recorded a 12% reduction among others.

CSE used real-time data (15-minute averages) for 26 cities in the IGP region from the Central Pollution Control Board’s (CPCB) Central Control Room for Air Quality Management for the analysis. The analysis highlights that Fatehabad which recorded the highest increase in PM 2.5 concentrations last year and Sirsa which recorded the highest improvement are only 40 km apart.

“Therefore, this massive variation cannot be attributed to meteorology and has to do with local factors. The annual average of these towns along with other smaller towns like Hisar and Jind in the north-west is heavily influenced by episodic pollution caused by burning of crop stubbles. The influence is so strong that it can elevate their monthly PM2.5 levels for November to that of Delhi’s, but unlike Delhi, these towns are directly exposed to the smoke. The elevated November levels do not linger on for the rest of the winter in these towns (as is the case in Delhi),” said Avikal Somvanshi, programme manager in CSE’s Urban Lab team of the Sustainable Cities programme.

“This brings out the impact of the extraordinary disruption that 2020 has caused. Despite the dramatic reduction in air pollution during the lockdown, pollution has bounced back across the region post-lockdown unmasking the high impacts of local and regional pollution. This demands quicker regional reforms and action to curb pollution from vehicles, industry, power plants and waste burning to further bend the air pollution curve on a regional scale,” explained Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director, Centre for Science and Environment.

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