Diwali was toxic, Christmas was too and so was New Year’s Eve with the air quality ‘severe’ on the last day of 2018, in sync perhaps with a year in which there was no getting away from the pollution.
As Delhiiites prepared to ring in a New Year with the air quality index (AQI) hovering at hazardous levels, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) reported that that 2018 was twice as bad as 2017 in terms of ‘severe’ air quality days.
In 2018, a total of 18 severe air quality days were recorded in comparison to nine the previous year, CPCB data showed.
The year, weary Delhiites said, seemed to pass in a blur of ‘severe’, ‘very poor’ and ‘poor’ air quality days, forcing children and the elderly to stay indoors, morning walkers delaying their daily exercise and schools moving around play times to reduce exposure to the outdoors.
Experts said Delhiites breathed over three months of toxic air in 2018.
However, the number of ‘very poor’ days in 2018 were 82, less than the 106 such days in 2017, the CPCB data said.
An AQI between 100 to 200 comes under the ‘moderate’ category, 201 and 300 is ‘poor’, 301 and 400 ‘very poor’, while that between 401 and 500 is ‘severe’.
There was little escaping the pollution, even in the dying days of 2018 with the last 10 days of the year witnessing intense pollution spells, when the AQI would slip to ‘severe’ by night and then slightly improve to ‘very poor’.
According to officials, the combination of calm wind and colder conditions is elevating pollution levels at night while it gets marginally better during the day with wind speeds picking up slightly and temperatures increasing.
The reason for the region’s worsening pollution in the summer months can also be attributed to a dust storm in June that resulted in a sudden spike in PM10 (fine particulate matter in the air with a diameter of less than 10 micrometer) level and pushed the overall air quality to ‘severe’.
India has witnessed more than 50 storms since February this year.
The storm season in 2018 was attributed to western disturbances, low pressure over the Indo-Gangetic plains and intense heating in west and northwest India, an analysis carried out by Delhi-based think-tank Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) showed.
On June 9, a severe dust storm followed by thunderstorms with wind speed of 96 km per hour hit Delhi. It was the sixth such storm since April, the most number of storms in a season in a decade.
On June 12, Rajasthan witnessed a ‘ground-level’ dust storm that drastically increased coarser particles in the air.
The air quality after June showed improvement with the monsoon season but even then there were just three days of good air quality.
But the air quality started deteriorating again from October, worsening to ‘very poor’. The first episode of ‘severe’ air quality of the winter season was registered on October 31.
The days around Diwali were the worst — ‘severe’ two days earlier and the worst of the year the day after on November 8 when an AQI of 642 was recorded.
The pollution after Diwali was 11 times the permissible limit, due to rampant bursting of toxic firecrackers in violation of a Supreme Court order.
In 2017, the AQI a day after Diwali was 367.
Unfortunately, Christmas was terrible too with unfavourable conditions like a drop in temperature again pushing the national capital’s air quality to ‘severe’.
A CSE analysis showed marginal improvement in the air quality in autumn and early winter months (October, November and December) of 2018 compared to the same period last year.
“There is a drop in the number of very poor days from 56 per cent in 2017 to 46 per cent in 2018. But there are hardly any good, satisfactory or even moderately polluted days in sight,” said Vivek Chattopadhyay, senior programme manager, Clean Air Programme, CSE.
The rising pollution levels had their inevitable health consequences.
According to a study released in the global health journal Lancel Planet Health 2018, one of every eight deaths in India is attributable to air pollution.
Over one lakh children under five years of age died in India in 2016 due to exposure to toxic air, according to a new WHO study which noted that about 98 per cent of children in the same age group in low- and middle-income countries were exposed to air pollution.
Environmental activists believe zero pollution is the solution, not “less or more” pollution.
“It must be targeted to become zero. We are at emergency levels of toxicity in the air. I do not believe we have enough political will yet to tackle air pollution at all sources as urgently and cohesively as it needs to be tackled,” said Ravina Kohli, environmentalist and a member of #MyRightToBreathe campaign.
“Air pollution is a fixable problem. Awareness of the problem has increased through active citizen action with media support but we are nowhere near making what we can call progress that will save lives and therefore, I believe… government still in denial of this serious problem,” she added.
Jyoti Pande Lavakare, co-founder, Care for Air NGO, said more people die due to air pollution in India today than war, man-made or natural disasters.
“We need real, measurable progress and a concerted effort to bring air pollution down to acceptable levels,” she said.
As another New Year dawns, millions of people in the city and its suburbs hoped that it would be a cleaner, healthier, less toxic one.