We don’t know how long the virus can cling in the air with particulate pollution’
The National Capital Region’s air quality index has risen to alarming levels. Aarti Khosla, Founder Director- Climate Trends who works with international networks to build policy, political and public momentum for rapid climate action, spoke to Sanjeev Singh about the recurring problem:
What are the factors that contribute to air pollution that we see around Diwali time in Delhi?
As we all know, the last couple of years, pollution during the winter periods has continuously been building up. Pollution is not new to Delhi. In the late 90s, Delhi was polluted and at that time the shift to CNG buses happened. The gains stayed for a couple of years but the trouble is that with increasing pollution and no checks on industrial pollution, localised sources, waste management, construction, and even transport itself, any gains that were made as a result of shift to CNG, were actually set back and Delhi came to a point by 2014 or 2015, where air pollution again became one of the worst in the world.
Diwali itself is not the biggest cause of pollution due to the firecrackers per se. But it is just that the firecrackers are an icing on the cake (for lack of a better phrase) at a time when so much else is already impacting Delhi’s air. Experts point out that as winter sets in, the movement of air reduces, which means that the ventilation index gets reduced. This results in any particle that comes into the air remaining suspended for a long time.
Are most of the sources of pollution local?
The reasons for pollution remain pretty much the same as you can imagine. Throughout the year, there is a contribution from transport, local industry, and industries in the adjoining areas whether they are power plants or steel plants. There is evidence which actually shows an imprint of metals coming all the way from Punjab and Haryana. So, scientists and researchers can figure out what kind of pollution is coming from adjoining areas and what pollution is being created by Delhi itself.
Roughly, half the pollution is Delhi’s own and half of it is created by outside sources. During the first two phases of lockdown, transport was minimal, industrial emission was low, brick kiln production was shut down and construction was completely banned. Just by shutting these four sources, we saw how clean Delhi’s air was in April and May. The issue is complex because Delhi’s air pollution is not just from two-three sources, it’s a cocktail. We need to tackle emissions at source rather than take knee-jerk reactions like putting up smog towers.
What about stubble burning in neighbouring states?
There is the contribution of stubble burning at this time of the year mainly due to the harvest cycle. Paddy has to be taken off and wheat has to be sown and there is very little time to keep the crop ready. This year, you will notice that stubble burning has already been happening for the last two to three weeks. The number of fire counts in Punjab this year is already more than last year and it hasn’t come to a peak. Yet Delhi’s air pollution is hitting record levels.
Some states have put a blanket ban on firecrackers before Diwali. Do you agree with such bans?
I think blanket bans are a must even if firecrackers contribute only 2% to air pollution. It’s the symbolism associated with what I can do as an individual and the message that I give to both my politicians and policy makers on what decisions they should be taking. As a community, we need to come together because I think we have hit a wall and it can’t get worse than this. There is so much threat of coronavirus already and we don’t know how long the virus can cling in the air with particulate pollution. All these things compounded are not giving us even a small window to be able to say let’s burn crackers on one day. I think the ban is necessary and we cannot be burning crackers this year.
What’s your take on the government proposing green crackers?
I am not an expert on firecrackers, but green crackers are technically defined as those which emit about 30% less pollution. In normal times, it would be OK that we are satisfying our socio-cultural needs by bursting green crackers, and yet not polluting the environment so much. In the case of Delhi, I think we have really crossed all limits and the city has suffered from massive amounts of pollution for large amounts of time. Green crackers are a compromise in which Delhiites don’t win, and one doesn’t want to be in a compromise in which we only end up losing.