NCR Delhi is taking emergency measures to control the impact of “severe” air pollution on Tuesday, but people in India’s major cities are not breathing easy either.
Half of the world’s 20 most polluted cities were in India, said the World Health Organization in a 2016 report. Indian government data and independent studies, too, say Indian cities are breathing bad air.
A Greenpeace India report released in January this year said data from state pollution control boards showed “there are virtually no places in India complying with WHO and National Ambient Air Quality (NAAQ standards, and most cities are critically polluted.”
“Except for a few places in southern India which complied with NAAQ standards, the entire country is experiencing a public health crisis due to high air pollution levels,” it said.
Pollution is routinely measured on the basis of particulate matter (PM), which is the sum of all solid and liquid particles suspended in air many of which are hazardous. Two particle sizes are widely monitored: PM10 and PM2.5.
Delhi topped the list of PM 10 level and it was followed closely by Ghaziabad, Allahabad, and Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh; Faridabad in Haryana; Jharia in Jharkhand, Alwar in Rajasthan; Ranchi, Kusunda and Bastacola in Jharkhand; and Patna in Bihar. PM can cause lung cancer, strokes and heart disease over the long term, as well as triggering symptoms such as heart attacks.
“Air pollution is a national public health crisis as almost none of the cities have bothered to keep air pollution in check, making them unlivable. We are facing an apocalypse right now due to unbreathable air,” Greenpeace India quoted its campaigner, Sunil Dahiya, as saying.
A Hindustan Times analysis of the Central Pollution Control Board’s data since 2002 showed that all major cities in north and central India, including Gwalior, Kanpur, Ludhiana and Surat, recorded higher pollution rise in percentage terms between 2002 and 2014 compared to Delhi.
These cities had lower baseline pollution load than Delhi and rise in air pollution had been a recent phenomenon unlike Delhi, where the first spurt was noticed in early 1990s.
The 2016 WHO report put Delhi as the 11th most polluted city, but smaller towns had galloped past the national capital. Gwalior and Allahabad took the second and third spot, respectively. Zabol in Iran was the world’s most polluted city in 2016.
The report considered annual average concentration of the particulate matter (PM) 2.5 in 3,000 cities from 103 countries. Delhi’s data is from 2013 and that for most Indian cities are from 2012.
The report – the Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database – showed India’s upcoming towns and cities were grappling with toxic air, possibly because of limited government intervention and increasing vehicular congestion.
India’s pollution watchdog data for the past 15 years shows mounting air pollution in smaller cities such as Gwalior, Allahabad, Kanpur, Jodhpur, Ludhiana and Bhopal has outpaced that in big metro cities.
Uttar Pradesh had four of the world’s 20 most polluted cities. Other than Allahabad, the other UP cities in the top 20 were Kanpur (15), Firozabad (17) and Lucknow (18).
Bihar’s capital Patna was sixth, Chhattisgarh’s capital Raipur seventh, Punjab towns of Ludhiana and Khanna were 12th and 16th respectively. Uttar Pradesh had the largest number of polluted cities followed by Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
The Indian Medical Association has urged Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal to declare a state of public health emergency as the city woke up to a dense cover of smog. While the smog had started setting in from Monday evening, Tuesday morning experienced a severe level of air pollution. According to reports, areas in Delhi-NCR witnessed AQIs as high as 446 at around 9:30 am on Tuesday. The lowest AQI was recorded in Gurgaon at the same time. It was 357 and is categorised as 'very poor'.
West Delhi, especially areas near Shadipur saw an AQI of 446, with the primary pollutant being PM2.5. Anand Vihar, like always had very poor air quality and recorded an AQI of 405 at 9:30 am, with the primary pollutant here being PM10.
In fact, 12 out of 19 monitoring stations in NCR recorded severe air quality levels. Even CM Kejriwal could not refrain himself from calling the city a gas chamber.
According to reports, visibility in and around the city was also quite low. According to MET officials, visibility dropped to 400 m at 8 am in the morning. Due to low visibility there were long traffic jams on the roads and even on the DND Flyway and the Greater Noida Expressway.
Quite a few flights and trains have been impacted by low visibility. Multple flights were delayed and one flight on its way from Lucknow had to be diverted to Jaipur. As many as 33 inbound trains were delayed by three hours or more.
IMA president Dr KK Aggarwal advised people to stay indoors and recommended that schools be shut for a couple of days. CM Kejriwal also urged Deputy CM Manish Sisodia to consider getting schools to shut for a couple of days.
The IMA has also called for the cancellation of the Delhi Half Marathon as the race begins early morning when the pollution is at its highest. Title sponsor, Airtel, has also hinted that it might sever its association with the marathon if the authorities refrained from addressing the issue of air pollution.
In fact, according to latest reports the parking fee has been hiked four times in Delhi to dissuade people from using their cars. The decision was taken at a meeting of the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution Prevention and Control Authority (EPCA) that has also recommended that Delhi Metro fares be reduced for off-peak hours for at least 10 hours.
The panel also recommended a fine of Rs 50,000 on construction agencies that are violating dust pollution norms in Delhi-NCR. EPCA also recommended that Odd-Even scheme be brought back.
Although schemes like Odd-Even, temporarily shutting of power plants and banning sale of crackers during Diwali are few of the steps taken by the government and the Supreme Court, it is quite evident that more stringent measures need to be taken to curb pollution. The severity of Delhi's pollution is compounded by the practice of burning crop stubble by farmers in northern India. Add to that the fact that there have been practically no winds in Delhi has led to this severe condition.
It remains to be seen if these additional measures will have any affect on Delhi's air quality.