By: Kamala Kelkar
Politicians promised action to reduce air pollution after heavy smog enveloped New Delhi last November. One year later, levels of particulate matter have hit nearly 20 times what the government considers a standard for health.
At this time of year, the air in Delhi cools and is often moist, which keeps pollution low-lying and stagnant. It easily absorbs soot from burning crops in neighboring states and exhaust from the more than five million vehicles on the city’s streets.
Inhalable waste in the form of particulate matter 10, or PM10, hit 1,940 micrograms per cubic meter for nearly two hours Thursday morning at a monitoring station in east Delhi. The Delhi Pollution Control Committee’s standard for healthy conditions is 100 micrograms per cubic meter or lower.
“The numbers are certainly very troublesome and a matter of worry,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, an executive director at the Centre for Science and Environment.
Air quality often deteriorates during the Diwali festival, which is celebrated with intense launching of firecrackers late into the night.
The polluted air threatens people’s lungs and leads to a spike in hospital admissions. After the thick smog of last year, the government said it would launch a campaign to improve air quality, but the momentum faded soon after the pollution lifted. Delhi remains vulnerable to more toxic episodes.
Weather officials hope wind will help sweep away hazardous air this year.
“Definitely there will be smoke from Diwali, but we forecast the condition will be moderate, not alarming,” Rajendra Jenamani, a fog expert at the India Meteorological Department, said Friday.
This time last year, PM10 was averaging about 900 micrograms per cubic meter throughout the National Capital Region, data from six monitoring stations showed.
Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit ordered a crackdown on polluting vehicles in November 2012. That month, the Transportation Department issued 6,551 citations – amounting to a fine of 1,000 rupees ($16) each — to polluting vehicles, 6,326 for vehicles lacking a yearly pollution certificate and 225 for vehicles emitting smoke, according to a Right to Information request.
The numbers combined were nearly twice as high as most months leading up to last November, but still amounted to a tiny fraction of vehicles on Delhi’s roads.
This year, Transportation Department citations have fallen dramatically, with only 225 issued in May.
Puneet Goel, principal secretary at the department, said priorities changed following the gang rape of 23-year-old student on a bus in the capital in December.
“We had to carry out another special drive because of the gang rape,” Mr. Goel said. “We were disciplining unruly drivers or ones who didn’t have proper identification and registration. It was our first priority.”
In addition to vehicle checks, Ms. Dikshit last year said she would ask the central government to regulate farmers burning crops in neighboring states.
After harvesting rice, farmers often set fire to the remains of the paddies to clear fields of waste so they can start planting wheat as soon as possible.
“It is as if it is deliberately being done to choke Delhi,” The Hindu newspaper quoted Ms. Dikshit as saying last year.
A NASA photograph last year showed a white canopy emanating from the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab and settling over the capital. In May, an environmental activist submitted the picture as evidence in a case filed to the National Green Tribunal in which he accused the three states of not doing enough to tackle crop burning.
“There is inaction on the part of the state governments and departments to stop the practice,” the activist, Vikrant Tongad, wrote in his submission to the tribunal.
So far only Haryana pollution officials have filed an affidavit that acknowledges the accusation and responds to it, despite several requests for the affidavits from the court.
Haryana banned the burning of leftover straw in 2003 and has since taken other steps such as providing subsidies to farmers who buy mechanical residue composters, the Haryana State Pollution Control Board’s affidavit says.
But these efforts appear to have lost traction. The state only documented one way it tried to limit burning in the past year, and that was by broadcasting jingles and advertisements about its adverse effects, the affidavit showed. The commercials ran during the wheat harvest season in April and May.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests says burning affects air quality in Delhi, but that it is up to the state governments to decide whether they want to regulate the practice or promote campaigns to stop it.
“Nothing is being done on the ground. Everyone agrees that it is harmful, but no one is taking action,” said Mr. Tongad.
PM10 in Delhi has risen more than 47% since 2000 and nitrogen dioxide levels are up 57%, according to the Centre for Science and Environment, despite steps such as switching public transport vehicles to run on compressed natural gas.
The Department of Environment and CSE proposed cracking down on open fires in Delhi and charging more for parking, among other initiatives, but the government rejected the proposals as it wanted more details, Ms. Roychowdhury and other officials said.
Mr. Goel says the Transportation Department is trying to make up for lost time, with a new drive for issuing air pollution citations. “We’ve had more than 10,000 citations since June,” he said.
Right to Information documents show, however, that the department issued 11,921 citations between June and September, down from 21,803 a year earlier.
The city’s hopes for clean air this Diwali and throughout winter depend largely on windy weather.
“If you have really high pollution levels and fog like last year, it’s a deadly combination,” Ms. Roychowdhury said. “We severely need a winter action plan.”