Delhi AQI deteriorates to 468; toxic air engulfs national capital
The CAQM — a body formed to bring Delhi’s unfettered winter pollution under control — decided against enforcing the final stage of measures under the GRAP.
Every silhouette was blurred, every blink painful, and every breath toxic. The national capital was trapped in a dome of grey on Friday with the already thick, toxic air turning more noxious as the city’s pollution worsened to one of its most dangerous levels ever recorded.
Delhi’s air quality index (AQI) deteriorated to 468, a reading deep in the “severe” category that underlined the abject collapse and failure of all administrative efforts to snuff out a hazard that plays itself out with clockwork precision every November.
The air leaves even healthy residents of Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) susceptible to serious long-term illnesses, while the outlook is even more bleak for children, the elderly, and people with existing illnesses.
Friday’s AQI was a sharp deterioration from 392 at 4pm a day ago, and the worst since 471 on November 12, 2021 — only underlining how little has changed over the years.
The AQI last year peaked at 450 on November 3. In fact, the air quality on Friday was briefly at its worst level in three years, as the AQI plunged to 475 at noon, the most toxic since November 10, 2020 (476).
A deadly concoction of factors together enmeshed to drop a sooty shroud on the city.
Northwesterly winds, blowing towards Delhi from Punjab and Haryana, brought with them dark, toxic plumes of smoke from simmering paddy fields.
According to the Union ministry of earth sciences’ Decision Support System — which provides estimates of the constituents of Delhi’s pollution — farm fire smoke was responsible for just about 35% of the city’s PM2.5 (ultra-fine particles).
Long-range transport winds play a key role in Delhi’s air quality. A northwesterly wind brings in smoke from farm fires in Punjab and Haryana, while most other winds push the plumes away. And yet, farm fires in Punjab and Haryana are still only a fraction of their usual peak.
The two states clocked 1,580farm fires on Thursday (1,552 in Punjab and 28 in Haryana), nearly as many as a day ago, but significantly fewer than 2,902 on November 2 last year, 2,840 in 2021 and 3,625 in 2020. Experts warned that these numbers were likely to spiral over the next few weeks and, consequently, drag Delhi’s pollution scourge deeper.
Further, an atmospheric phenomenon known as “thermal invasion” magnified the impact of local pollutants and farm fires, creating an invisible lid that traps pollutants instead of letting them disperse.
Health experts stressed that Delhi’s air would leave even healthy people sick and their immune systems compromised.
Dr Akshay Budhraja, senior consultant of respiratory and sleep medicine, Aakash Healthcare, warned of reduced lung capacity and effects on the body’s defence mechanism, leading to pneumonia, bronchitis, pharyngitis, conjunctivitis. “Even healthy adults can experience asthma-like symptoms without any past history, which could be a sign of lung infection as well. The most common acute effects experienced are throat and eye irritation, cough with dirty coloured phlegm or breathing trouble,” Dr Budhraja said.
And while the smog draped every inch of India’s Capital and set off alarm bells among residents, policy makers responsible for regulating the Capital’s pollution levels seemed unmoved.
The Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM) — a body formed to bring Delhi’s unfettered winter pollution under control — decided against enforcing the final stage of measures under the Graded Response Action (Grap), even though the AQI crossed 450, the threshold at which these steps can be brought into effect.
The air, CAQM argued, had improved from 475 at noon to 468 at 4pm.
“The CAQM subcommittee noted that Delhi’s average AQI is already showing a declining trend since afternoon. At 12pm the average AQI of Delhi clocked 475, which improved to 468 at 4 pm and further improved to 456 at 5 pm. Forecasts from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology and IMD also indicates a further improvement in the AQI,” said CAQM in a statement on Friday.
It also said measures under Stage 4, which include curbs on trucks entering Delhi, a broader ban on construction projects and the leeway to state governments to shut educational institutions, were “disruptive”.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi chose to blame the Centre, as well as the governments of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, but not the government of Punjab, where it is in power.
Delhi environment minister Gopal Rai said: “Where are Haryana and Uttar Pradesh environment ministers and where is the Union environment minister at such a time? All state governments will also have to be active in reducing pollution, not just Delhi.”
And amid the administrative inaction and blame game, Delhi’s PM2.5 continued to soar.
The CPCB bulletin said PM2.5, a byproduct of combustion, was the prominent pollutant in Delhi’s air. Delhi’s PM2.5 levels peaked at 310.2µg/m³ at 12pm, more than times the national safe standard of 60µg/m³. Similarly, the PM10 peaked at 505.3µg/m³ at 12pm, also five times the safe limit of 100µg/m³.
Sunil Dahiya, analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) said not invoking Stage 4, despite an AQI over 450, defeated the purpose of the Grap.
“The entire purpose of Grap and CAQM is to avoid hazardous air pollution episodes and improve air quality, but if they lose their proactiveness and in this case, not react either, then this is defying the purpose of such measures and such bodies to exist.”
Bhavreen Kandhari, a Delhi-based environmental activist said year-on-year, both the state and the central governments were involved in a blame game, with eventually only Delhi residents being left to suffer.
“We cannot control meteorological conditions, but we can crack down on sources of pollution and particular take action in the non-winter months. We know vehicles are an important source and so deterrents like congestion charges, or high parking charges are just some policy level changes that need to be brought in.” she said.
Wind speeds picked up marginally after 2pm, said experts, with the AQI improving to 432by 10pm. However, they stressed, this would be only temporary.
And as temperatures dip, pollution levels are only likely to worsen.
Delhi on Friday clocked a minimum temperature of 16.8°C, a degree above normal.
Forecasts from the India Meteorological Department (IMD) predicted that this number would dip to 14°C by November 6. With more farm fires and lower temperatures both in the offing, Delhi’s grey dome is unlikely to give way — at least not through administrative action.
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