Weekly Update: Delhi’s Hazardous Air; A New Strain Of COVID

A social media meme drenched in black humour has been doing the rounds in Delhi for the past couple of weeks. It goes: “If you don’t gulp down your peg of Glenfiddich quickly enough on an evening in Delhi, it can turn into a Laphroiag.” The reference here to the lighter coloured Speyside whisky turning into a darker, more peaty Islay whisky is all about pollution in Delhi. On Saturday evening around 7 pm, the Air Quality Index (AQI), which measures the levels of suspended particulate matter in the air, in Delhi was around 745. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution and the greater the health concern. For example, an AQI value of 50 or below represents good air quality, while an AQI value over 300 represents hazardous air quality. At 745, it is a grievously terrible situation.

While jokes and memes, tapped out on phones from well-endowed and privileged Delhiites, gives one side of the picture in Delhi, the story from the streets of India’s capital city is not one that could make you guffaw. Delhi has an estimated 150,000-200,000 homeless people, the majority of whom live on the streets. CNN had a heart-rending story about an 84-year-old homeless man begging for food on the sidewalk outside Delhi’s South Campus Metro station, breathing the air noxiously full of smog. Millions of Delhiites eke out their living in the sprawling city with a population of more than 20 million by working on the streets, on construction sites, in open-air food and vegetable markets, or simply by plying auto rickshaws and handcarts. Hawkers, policemen, security guards, food delivery couriers–you name it–they are constantly exposed to air quality that is life-threatening.

The situation is a repeat every year, especially as winter sets in and cold air traps emissions from stubble burning on farms around Delhi, poorly regulated factories in and around the city, and the mesh of foul emission spewing traffic. Every year, when this happens, there is media outrage and huge concerns. But everyone, including the government, has become so inured to it that even as it gets warmer and the air clears even a little bit–although even then the AQI levels are dangerous–the outrage dies down. Year in and year out, it is the same story.

It is not that the government–both at the centre and in the Delhi state–have not done anything. A few years ago, they tried an experiment of restricting traffic by allowing only vehicles with licence numbers that were even to be out on the streets on one day and ones with odd numbers the next. The experiment wasn’t given time enough for its efficacy to be assessed before it was shelved.

This year, following a judicial order after an environmental activist had moved court, schools and colleges were shut down; construction projects were stopped and some of the coal-fired power plants around the city were ordered to be closed down. But as the air quality improved marginally, everything was back to business as usual.

Delhi isn’t the only Indian city that is reeling from the adverse effects of air pollution. Nine of the ten most polluted cities in the world are in India, which depends heavily on fossil fuel as a source of energy. At the COP26 summit that recently concluded in Glasgow, India was one of the countries that wanted to phase down coal instead of phasing it out.

It is a classic conundrum. Industrialised countries have reached a level of advanced development, (much of it achieved through decades of burning fossil fuel) where they can now decide to move to a non-fossil fuel environment. Countries such as India, which are still grappling with basic development goals cannot afford to do so. What then is the solution? The answers remain elusive.

Yet Another COVID Variant From S Africa

Even as a new and potentially more dangerous COVID strain was discovered in South Africa and travel restrictions were imposed by many countries on movement of people from there, many Indian states have imposed fresh restrictions on people travelling to those states from international as well as domestic areas. In Maharashtra, all domestic travellers will have to either be fully vaccinated or have a favourable RT-PCR test that is valid for 72 hours.

In Kerala, where the COVID situation has remained alarming, the emergence of the new strain, named Omicron, has given cause for concern. Kerala has been so badly affected by COVID this year that in August there were days when the relatively small state accounted for more than 50% of the total number of cases in the country.

Epidemiologists have had no concrete answers to why Kerala has been so badly affected. Some say it is because the state is able to test people for COVID at a much higher rate than what other states are able to do. Others point to population density in the state. But it is also a fact that Kerala has been able to vaccinate its population more efficiently than other states and that last year it was able to control the spread of the virus better than several other states.

But given India’s huge population, high levels of poverty and low levels of awareness, the emergence of a new strain of COVID, albeit for now in S. Africa, should be a reason for worry. And state as well as central governments have to constantly monitor travel, vaccination programmes and precautionary measures such as mandatory social distancing and the use of masks.

‘I Am A Pollution Refugee, Forced To Migrate From Delhi’

A Delhi citizen all her life, Priyanka Gera was forced to leave a well-settled living due to worsening air quality in the city. Gera says she has lost hope of seeing any improvement

I grew up in Delhi. I was a pure Delhiite until the birth of my daughter when I could no longer ignore the air pollution in Delhi. My husband was perpetually anxious about her wellbeing. We bought an AQI monitor and put air purifiers at every room in our house.

During winters we didn’t send her to pre-school on most of the days because the AQI used to be severe. We would escape to a hill station around Diwali. Then came a point when we no longer wanted to adjust our lifestyle according to pollution levels.

We started wearing N95 masks in 2018-19 while venturing out. Now masks are mandatory due to the pandemic and I find it funny that people still won’t wear masks despite the Covid guidelines, leave alone the poor air quality.

As the situation got worse by each passing year, in 2019, we took the tough call to leave our families, social circle and well-set careers and move to Bangalore for the sake of a better environment. Most people can’t do that or won’t do that – leave their well settled lives because of a danger that they don’t think is clear and present. So, they tell themselves various things to live with it, most vague of these reasoning is that somehow, you’ll develop strength or a kind of immunity in your body to adapt to pollution as if it were some ordinary flu germs. Yes, it’s true, I have heard this from so many people in Delhi!

ALSO READ: ‘NCR Air Is Worse Than Smoke From A Coal Mine’

Having lived in Bangalore for two years have done just the opposite. Now, every time we come to Delhi to visit our families, we get unwell. I wake up coughing every single day. No, it’s not Covid-19, it’s another lung killer that we choose to ignore – pollution!

I don’t know why most people are not anxious about the pollution affecting quality of their life. People like us are exceptions, who are willing to uproot themselves because we’ve lost hope that it can ever improve here.

Surely the government and agencies have been aware of the potential crisis since decades, that’s why CNG was introduced and Metro was planned. All industries have been sent out of Delhi. The problem is not just Delhi, it’s very much there in the neighbouring states too.

Government action is but all ‘reaction’ – nothing much is being done proactively. It takes the Supreme Court to give ultimatums to Delhi Government to take steps, now construction has been halted, schools are shut etc.

NCR Air Pollution in Winter

‘NCR Air Is Worse Than Smoke From Dhanbad Coal Mines’

Rajesh Kumar, 48, a construction engineer in Faridabad, says he shudders to think how people with respiratory issues cope with NCR air pollution in winter

I grew up in Dhanbad, one of the most polluted places in the country, but trust me the air quality in Delhi-NCR is even poorer than the simmering smoke from coal mines. I live in Faridabad, and while a lot of people are focusing on how polluted Delhi is, the entire NCR is equally bad, if not worse.

I had shifted to Delhi-NCR in 2005 from Manipur and the difference in air quality between the two places was palpable. I begun having difficulty in breathing while driving, and the pollution has shot to such alarming levels in the last five years, that it has become unmanageable. Every day is an ordeal.

Owing to the nature of my work as an engineer, I have to drive every day to my workplace that is often a dusty mass of construction land. I’m not asthmatic, but still if a normally young and healthy person like me can find the situation so troublesome, imagine what it can do to senior citizens, kids and those fighting respiratory illnesses.

My mother, 67, spends her time between Dhanbad and Faridabad. She is asthmatic and with each passing year that she spends in Faridabad, she has been complaining of breathing issues. She stays put inside the house when she comes here to avoid the “heavy, pungent air”. My younger son also finds it difficult to navigate winter months because of the pollution levels. He is allergic to dust and keeps sniffling continuously.

There are factories upon factories in NCR and a never ending series of construction work going on, adding to the pollution. Many of these factories don’t follow the pollution control norms adding to the misery of people. I have even stopped going for my morning and evening walks owing to the pollution. I tried for a few days, but then I begun facing difficulty in breathing (one cannot even think of jogging) and my eyes also started burning.

Kumar says climate crisis is for real

Last year was so different: there was the spectre of Covid looming large over our heads, but the lockdown meant lesser vehicles, lesser factories open and thus very low levels of pollution. It was like we had moved to a different world. Even post-Diwali, the air quality hadn’t deteriorated like every year, the visibility wasn’t low. But we are back to square one again this year. Seems like we have squandered away all the gains made last year.

Climate change is real and a solution is required urgently. Not only are dialogues between nations important, it is prudent for governments across the world to hold dialogues with their citizens. In India, we need to really take a quick, hard look at the problem. As a government employee, my team and I ensure that we don’t compromise the Earth and its people’s health in the name of development. If we have to cut a particular number of trees for construction, we ensure that we plant double the number of trees.

Unless we give the Earth back more than we take from it, we are going to keep facing difficulties. As we have noticed, each year is getting more difficult climate change wise and the weather is getting more and more unpredictable. We cannot ignore the problem of pollution anymore. The parali burning in Punjab also needs to be addressed. Rather than just blaming the farmers, we need to work together in helping them find a solution as well. We all need to come together to save the Earth.

Pollution Levels Rise in NCR-Delhi

Watch – ‘Zero Concern For Air Quality At Ground Level’

As pollution levels rise in NCR-Delhi, doctors warn the spread of Covid-19 may worsen. LokMarg speaks to environmentalist Sanjeev Lakda and several residents about the rise and air pollution level, its reasons and harmful impact in pandemic times.

There is unanimity that ‘Unlock’ has spelled doom for the Capital region’s environment. With the return of industrial, vehicular and stubble-burning activities, Delhi residents are now plagued with a double-whammy of bad air and virus.

Watch the video here:

Pollution Control Norms Fixed, Not Enforced

2) and nitrogen dioxide (NOx) for these industries. This took over six months of protracted arguments in court. But now that the standards have been issued, there is little or no enforcement. This is what needs to be changed. But there is some good news. The MOES report finds that emissions from residential sector have reduced by half from 2010 to 2018. This is because of the increased penetration of LPG even in the poorer areas of the city. This means that something can be done. It will show up in the atmosphere. We will breathe better and cleaner air. This is where our efforts have to be deployed. This is where we must stay focussed. Till next winter. With better news. (This article was first published in Down To Earth www.downtoearth.org )    ]]>