By Rajat Arora Late last year, the Delhi government declared a medical emergency with the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) sending out alarming messages on its website, calling for states to tackle pollution on a “priority basis”. The CPCB held frantic meetings to keep the public updated on the alarming PM (particulate matter) levels. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal termed the situation an “emergency” even as the Meteorological Department forecast that a change of weather was most unlikely. The World Health Organisation in 2014 classified New Delhi as the world’s most polluted capital, with air quality levels worse than Beijing; and it appears that in 2017 the situation worsened multiple-fold. Delhi’s air quality is usually known to worsen ahead of the onset of winter as the cool air traps pollutants near the ground, preventing them from dispersing into the atmosphere, a phenomenon known as inversion. While Delhi has always had its fair share of pollutants attributed to the exploding vehicular population. (What can you expect if 1,400 new vehicles are added to the roads every single day?) According to government statistics, the total number of vehicles in Delhi exceeded 10 million for the first time in 2016. There is official apathy to keep a check on vehicular emissions; and the annual winter problem is exacerbated because of the stubble burning by the farmers. A report in the Lancet (world’s leading medical journal) said that pollution had claimed as many as 2.5 million lives in India in 2015, the highest in the world. And it’s only a guess the role of the nation’s capital has on this “achievement”. How much sense does it really make in always working on a war-footing, in utter desperation, year-after-year, when there is a need to work on this all through the year so that the situation that only seems to be worsening year-after-year is judiciously controlled? Construction activities were suspended temporarily; the city chiefs called for a total ban on trucks entering the city; schoolchildren were asked to refrain from going to schools and told to stay indoors because they are the most vulnerable to pollution that is usually at its peak in the mornings. Why be concerned only about the children and the aged? The microscopic particles, which are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, are considered harmful because they are small enough to lodge deep into the lungs and pass into other organs, causing serious health risks to even a normal human being. Retailers selling air purifiers are making merry as sales have surged significantly. People are moving about with masks and scarves over their nose, hoping that it could bring respite. The hashtag #smog was the top trending on Twitter, Facebook as 2017 closed, even as the people of Delhi continued to demand stronger measures to curb pollution. But what does one need to do? Primarily start with planting more trees. Development and upgrading of infrastructure should not mean felling of trees and starving people of oxygen. The government should ensure that polluting industrial establishments move out of the city limits and also stringently limit approvals to these units in areas of habitation. The government machinery should also start looking at greener alternatives in place of pollution-emitting fuel in vehicles. While the to-do list could be long, it is imperative to start somewhere because pollution has now overwhelmed the action taken and what is unfolding today is a scary story. (Rajat Arora is an Interventional Cardiologist and Medical Director at Yashoda Hospitals in Delhi. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at drrajat@yashodahospital.org)]]>

Gas Chamber: Mayur Sharma saw it coming

Winter is no longer the sole season of despair in the Capital and its NCR hinterland, home to 46 million living and breathing human beings, as much as all of Spain.  Some people, however, didn’t wait to find out. Celebrity food enthusiast Mayur Sharma was one, quitting the city he was born and lived in for clean air. His story:  

It’s been around a year and I think this is the best decision I have ever made. We had been thinking about leaving Delhi for a long time but it was in the pollution-shock winter of 2016 that we pulled our kids from school and and lived in Goa for the three months — November, December, January — when the air was really bad. We moved to a rented house in Goa. Moving even for three months was not an easy task as we had to uproot ourselves. We took the decision that at least my wife and children are going to move out of this gas chamber, move to a cleaner environment for a period of two to three months till January when the air is really bad. We came back here after that because the kids had to finish school. However, after returning to Delhi, we came to the decision that it was time to say bye to this city. And in August 2017, we finally moved. My kids were very young – the older one in Class 3 and the younger in Class 1. They had a lot of friends in the neighbourhood and were very young – born, brought up and started schooling here and us too – though we grew up in a different Delhi. I was leaving a house I’d stayed in since 1976, which I shared with my parents. We had quite a life here but then there – in Goa – when you breathe the clean air and drive through the lush green fields, you know it is different. So yeah, I was very happy with my decision. Though, it invariably meant a lot of travelling for me. But I was anyway doing it – just added a bit more to it. A lot of our friends are already inquiring about it – four or five couples that I know have already moved. And more of them are considering it – things are slowly gaining pace in Goa. There are lot of good school options there – our focus was not that – oh, we can’t move because education might suffer but that is not a concern anymore. Delhi is my city – I was born here, I grew up here, I wish I could be there for it. I mean, the right to breathe is the most fundamental right more than food, more than water. And that right is being seriously compromised right now. I know of people who have started a whatsapp group and share concerns about the city. I know the government, the administration; the people want to do something for the city and focusing on it and making it a big deal – which it is – so I know all hope is not lost. But I don’t think I will want to come back to this city. Even if the government takes an initiative and cleans it nice some day, it will be difficult coming back. There is not just one issue – there are several. Corruption, there is no option for school, safety – they are equally important. There are multiple practical solutions and they have been debated to death in the last few years. I have seen some very sensible people talk about it but they have to be implemented. Vested interests have to be kept aside as I believe everything is possible you if you get down to doing it.

More from the Gas Chamber 

‘Delhi gave me lasting eye damage’

‘Delhi’s air is killing us all’

-With Lokmarg]]>

Gas Chamber: 'Delhi gave me eye damage'

For 33-year-old journalist Shashank, shifting to Delhi 12 years ago was a good career move. The dust that hangs over the Capital’s roads, however, gave this young man permanent eye damage. He’s had to almost quit biking, one of his loves. His story:

It has been 12 years since I shifted to the national capital. Having completed my graduation from Kolkata, I shifted base to Delhi in July 2006. And the city became my home. Sadly, however, the city that gave me a new life and a new perspective also took away part of the vision in my left eye. But then it’s not the city which is to be blamed but its ever-increasing, toxin-rich pollution that left its mark on me in the shape of a permanent scar on the cornea of my left eye. The problem was first detected two years back when both my eyes began to remain watery and red. I was advised some eye-drops but to no relief. My vision was blurred and I was unable to open my eye in bright light. An advanced scan led to the discovery of two damaged layers in my left eye. Now I permanently wear glasses and have a -2.7 correction in my left eye. It’s impossible to step outside without sunglasses as my eye is now too sensitive for bright sunlight. How this problem started is the real shocker. It’s right in front of us but nobody never taken it seriously. If you drive in Delhi, you are well aware of the dust or sand that is encountered on the road, especially Ring Road. These dust particles are the main components of Particulate Matter (PM10) in the immediate environment. I’m an avid biker, and I have always made sure of using a good quality helmet and other protective gear. The dust was getting through all the time, even though I had started splashing water in my eyes as a rule after every ride. Rubbing my eyes, a spontaneous reaction,  made the situation worse. Over a period of time, I developed a permanent scar in one eye, and there it will remain for life. I have to be a part of this city — my family, friends and career are here. So I wear glasses all the time and have cut down on biking. Delhi’s pollution is silently killing us all every day and it’s high time we sit up, take note and act.

More from the Gas Chamber

Mayur Sharma saw it coming

‘Delhi’s air is killing us all’

—With Lokmarg  ]]>


By S.N. Tripathi An apple a day keeps the doctor away is passe. Yet, it applies so well to the health of our environment, especially the atmosphere. We keep our body healthy so that it can efficiently fight diseases. A weak body will need heavy medication to fight a disease and, in the process, may develop side-effects. This general principle applies to the atmosphere too. Relatively clean air with the concentration of ambient pollutants under control is in a better position to deal with occasional large emissions. Large forest fires, volcanic eruptions and dust-storms are unexpected incidents that may momentarily cause air pollution levels to spike above permissible levels. After such events, a healthy environment would be easily able to return to a cleaner state. In Delhi, however, after over 10 days of “severe”-level air quality, it improved to a “very poor” level during the December scare. This is a sign of an unhealthy environment that takes time to recover to its original state, though even that state may not be very healthy at all. This is a cause of great concern and needs immediate public and policy attention. The Indo-Gangetic Plains (IGP) have recorded unprecedented levels of air pollution exceeding all permissible limits almost all year long. The situation is such that, just like an unhealthy body, its immune system fails to recuperate from external periodic events such as crop burning in Punjab and Haryana, excessive vehicular pollution, or construction dust. This is because even in the normal state, year round, the pollution caused by poorly-regulated industries as well as coal-fired power plants with obsolete emission control norms exceeds the limits that the environment can handle. The lack of a fine self-correcting balance mechanism creates a fragile situation ready to explode. Sadly, while Delhi has the “privilege” of great media attention, other cities across the plains are worse off. Lucknow has been recorded as the most polluted city in India, while PM2.5 values of Kanpur, Moradabad and even Ghaziabad are not far behind. There is, in fact, evidence that most Indian cities with populations of over 100,000 have pollution levels well exceeding WHO limits. One way to ascertain atmospheric pollution levels is to measure the rate at which dust particles block sunlight. Research based on the ISRO network shows that since 1995, pollution in the atmosphere has been increasing across India, with a much steeper rise in the IGP. What are the major reasons behind this and what could be the possible solution to this gigantic problem, which is now the largest killer globally as estimated by the Lancet Commission? It is worth remembering that even with all sincere efforts, it will take years, if not decades, to secure clean and breathable air in our cities. Pollution in water bodies such as a river is much better understood compared to atmospheric pollution. The overall size of a water body is only a fraction of the area of the land. For example, the Ganga and the Yamuna put together will only be a fraction of the area of the IGP. Even with a simpler system with far greater understanding we are struggling to keep our rivers clean. The atmosphere has active and complex interactions between gases, particulate and liquid droplets, especially during monsoon and winter-time fog. The problem is further compounded by transformation of gases into particulate matter, giving rise to secondary formations. Data shows that during winter, up to 50-60 per cent of total PM2.5 is secondary in nature (forming in the atmosphere rather than released at source) because of conversion of gases such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, volatile organic carbon (VOCs) and poly aromatic hydrocarbon (PAHs) into particles. It is a highly challenging task to trace the sources of these gases. Existing sampling methods are not capable of distinguishing between primary and secondary sources. Hence, the present source-apportionment studies that employ these techniques fail to provide the comprehensive understanding that is required to solve this problem. The reported sources are based on particles collected on filters followed by their chemical speciation. Unfortunately, these analyses can only achieve speciation at most by 50 per cent (lack of mass closure), limiting our ability to properly understand the sources. This is also precisely the reason that the problem of air pollution needs to be looked at a regional scale as gases emitted elsewhere can contribute to PM at a different place, thus limiting the overall efficacy of source mitigation efforts solely driven by local considerations. The regional nature of the problem requires inter-state cooperation. This can be achieved by creating a single empowered agency with scientific, technological and legal arms. There is a valley-like effect in the IGP — the tall Himalayas in the north not allowing air masses to rise and disperse, as is the case in other parts of the country. Inversion conditions during winter further reduce the dispersion capacity of the lower part of the atmosphere, leading to accumulation near the surface. Such weather conditions cannot be avoided. One way to deal with these is to adopt stricter emission laws for the IGP, with rigorous enforcement backed up by severe penalties. The monitoring networks can be scaled up using low-cost, automated sensors that have been giving promising results. Experience of other countries can be used to combat this problem. (S.N. Tripathi, a professor at IIT-Kanpur, has been closely studying air quality, climate and health over the years. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at snt@iitk.ac.in) (IANS)]]>