Opinion

Air pollution in north India


Published : 26 Sep 2022 08:49 PM

Last week, I looked up at the sky and couldn’t believe my eyes. For what seemed like the first time in years, I could see a beautiful blue sky over Delhi. India’s national capital is otherwise the most polluted city in the world, according to studies that measure the deadliest particles in the air — PM2.5.

It wasn’t my imagination. Turns out that on the day in question, Delhi recorded it’s first “good” quality air day this year with an Air Quality Index or AQI of 47. The AQI tracks pollutants in the air whether from dust, vehicle exhaust, soil dust, pollen, etc

AQI up to 50 is considered ‘good’, while AQI from 51 to 100 falls under ‘satisfactory’.

According to India’s central pollution control board, ’good’ AQI has minimal impact on health, while ‘satisfactory’ AQI may cause “minor breathing discomfort to sensitive people”. And just to put Delhi’s air pollution crisis in perspective, Delhi recorded only ONE ‘good’ air quality day last year in October, five ‘good’ days in 2020 and two ‘good’ days in 2019.

Which means that the air crisis is a constant pretty much throughout the year, not one that just makes headlines during the winter months when stubble burning and the weather come together to make air pollution a full-blown crisis.

Which is why it is important for citizens to demand answers from the authorities: What are you doing this year to ensure that we are breathing cleaner air?

I still see too many people rolling their eyes when you talk about air pollution, they think it will never really impact them. But it already is.

A report released earlier this year by the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute says air pollution shortens lives by almost ten years in Delhi. It says a permanent nationwide reduction of 25% of particulate pollution would increase India’s national life expectancy by 1.4 years, and the life expectancy for residents of Delhi by 2.6 years.

The report identified India as the world’s second most polluted country, right after Bangladesh. And air pollution is not just a Delhi problem.

The report says more than 63% of the population of India lives in areas that exceed the country’s national air quality standard of 40 µg/m3. It points out that the annual average PM2.5 level for Delhi in 2020 was 107 µg/m3, which is more than 21 times the guideline of the World Health Organisation.

The peak pollution season is now upon us, starting in October and November when stubble burning in Haryana and Punjab in particular causes north India to choke. Over 20 stubble fires over 5 days were recorded last week in Punjab and it is only going to get worse unless the state government urgently intervenes.

In the past, the AAP government in Delhi would blame Punjab for Delhi’s air crisis and for not doing enough on stubble fires. But this time, with the AAP itself in power in Punjab, the onus is squarely on them.

Reports say the Punjab government has prepared a big plan which includes a massive awareness drive, distribution of thousands of crop residue management machines and engaging students and religious places to fight paddy stubble burning during the upcoming harvest season. But is it going to work without adequate cash incentives for farmers?

“We are launching a massive awareness drive in villages to motivate farmers not to burn paddy stubble. It will involve 2,800 camps in villages across the state to dissuade farmers from burning the crop residue,” Punjab Agriculture Director Gurwinder Singh is quoted as saying.

In Delhi, reports say the government is making it mandatory for large construction sites of 20,000 square metres or more to install air quality monitors to keep a tab on dust pollution which is a major contributor to the toxic air. In any case when the air deteriorates very badly, construction

Air pollution in north India needs to be treated as a national health emergency and one which we pay attention to throughout the year. It is a shame that the country’s national capital is now the world’s most polluted city.

It means even the most healthy people living here are far more likely to die of diseases like lung cancer. This needs a robust fight from the state and the federal government. We owe it to our kids and to ourselves.

Nidhi Razdan is an award-winning Indian journalist. She is a Consulting Editor with NDTV and has extensively reported on politics and diplomacy.