Delhi bans firecrackers as air quality is now ‘severe’

Publish on November 06, 2020     Source: Hindustan Times

The Delhi government on Thursday banned the use of all firecrackers till November 30as air pollution in the national capital soared to its worst level in a year, with a poisonous blanket of smog signalling how desperate measures taken over recent years to arrest the annual health emergency have failed to offer an effective solution.

On Thursday, the average air quality index (AQI) was in the “severe” zone for the first time this season, just over a week before Diwali, a festival during which use of illegal firecrackers in the past has led to the crisis spiralling out of control. According to the Central Pollution Control Board’s (CPCB) 4pm bulletin, the average AQI for the 24-hour period since Wednesday was 450. The day before, it was 343. Air quality is considered “good” when AQI is lower than 50.

The decision is likely to be a controversial one -- last year, many people burst crackers, mostly obtained illegally, in defiance of a court order that allowed only green crackers, which weren’t available in time.

On Thursday, a day after several incidents of the use of firecrackers was reported, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic was deteriorating in the Capital due to rising air pollution and appealed to people to avoid using them. “If we burst firecrackers this Diwali, we are playing with the lives of our children and families...” he added.

“Reviewed corona situation in Del n preparedness wid Chief Secy, Health officials and all DMs. Corona cases hv increased due to festival season n pollution. It was decided to... ban crackers in Del...,” Kejriwal later tweeted. The ban will remain in place from November 7 to November 30.

Coincidentally, on November 4, a group of researchers from Harvard published a study showing a direct correlation between air pollution and Covid-19 mortality rates.

With the complete ban, 800 open spaces where people were to be permitted to burn “green” firecrackers between 8pm and 10pm on Diwali will also not be allowed. A senior official of the Delhi government said that with the ban, all licenses that have been issued to firecracker traders will be cancelled. As per the Delhi government’s environment ministry, 93 traders across the national capital were granted licenses till November 4.

With this announcement, Delhi joined states such as Rajasthan, Odisha and West Bengal in banning the use of firecrackers ahead of Diwali on November 14.

Air quality typically worsens with approaching winter every year as farmers burn stubble, adding to toxic fumes from vehicles, dust from neighbouring regions, and unfavourable meteorological conditions in the region.

The share of stubble burning in Delhi’s pollution rose to 42% on Thursday, the maximum so far this season, according to the central government’s air quality monitoring agency. Experts said raging farm fires, mostly in Punjab and Haryana, windless conditions and dipping temperature led to an alarming worsening of air quality.

The ministry of earth sciences air quality monitor, System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), said the farm fire count in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and neighbouring areas increased significantly, and stood at 4,135 on Wednesday, the highest this season so far. It said the boundary layer wind direction is north-westerly – favourable for carrying pollutants from farm fires into the national Capital. “The share of stubble burning in Delhi’s PM2.5 pollution was estimated at 42% for Thursday,” SAFAR added.

Stubble burning accounted for 5% of Delhi’s pollution on Wednesday, 10% on Tuesday, 16% on Monday and 40% on Sunday. Last year, the contribution from stubble fires to Delhi’s air pollution peaked on October 31, when the figure was 44%, according to CPCB. Diwali was celebrated on October 27 in 2019, leading to an overlap and very high air pollution levels.

All 36 monitoring stations in Delhi recorded air quality in the “severe” category on Thursday. The AQI in Ghaziabad was 464, Greater Noida 457, Noida 450, Gurugram 443, and Faridabad 436.

On Thursday morning, visibility improved marginally from the previous evening as winds picked up to about 8kmph, but by the evening, the layer of toxic smog hung strongly over Delhi.

The PM2.5 (fine, respirable pollution particles) concentration spiked to about 360 micrograms per cubic metres, six times the national safe standard and 36 times the World Health Organization’s safe levels. The PM10 level stood at 561 microgram per cubic meters at 10am – the highest since November 15 last year, when it was 637 µg/m3, according to CPCB data. PM10 levels below 100 µg/m3 are considered safe in India. These particles include dust, pollen and mold spores. “Severe” category air affects healthy people and seriously impacts those with existing diseases.

According to leaders of farmers’ groups, stubble fires are likely to continue for one more week. “Harvesting did start four days early this year but it’s not over yet. They (the fires) are extremely high in number and widespread. This is because farmers are extremely agitated with the farm bills. There is high pollution in Punjab also because of farm fires,” said Harinder Singh Lakhowal, Bharatiya Kisan Union president, Punjab. His reference is to the three farm reform bills that farmers in many states, including Punjab, are protesting. Worried about offending farmers, who are already up in arms, there’s been little action against them for the fires this year.

Scientists said very high contribution from farm fires and local emissions contributed to a build-up of PM 2.5 concentrations. “There were about 5,000 stubble fires yesterday. This together with slow wind and subsidence of air led to unexpectedly high levels of air pollution in Delhi. Local emissions from fire crackers and traffic also added to the build-up. Today again we are seeing around 4,000 fire counts,” said Vijay Soni, scientist, India Meteorological Department, air quality division.

Punjab has recorded a higher number of stubble fires this year so far compared to last year, according to data available with the ministry of earth sciences. Last year, between September 20 and November 3, there were 33,500 fire points recorded in the state. During the same period, 39,000 fire points have been recorded this year.

The meteorological conditions also resulted in the worsening of the situation since Wednesday. “There are two things that are happening together. North-westerly winds are bringing pollutants and wind speed has reduced. On Wednesday night and early morning Thursday, winds were calm so pollutants remained trapped close to the surface. After 9.30am, winds picked up for some time before calming again in the evening. We are not expecting a change in wind direction before November 10, when it may gradually shift to easterly, but during the transition of wind direction, wind speed usually falls, which can lead to further aggravation of air pollution,” explained Kuldeep Shrivastava, head, regional weather forecasting centre.

Shrivastava said the maximum temperature in the Capital began falling since Wednesday as the smog-like situation blocked the sun.

Pallavi Pant, scientist at the US-based Health Effects Institute, said: “We know that long-term exposure to air pollution can cause many of the health conditions associated with increased vulnerability to Covid-19. Air pollution can also trigger inflammatory response which can make it easier for an individual to catch a respiratory infection. Although there are no analyses from India yet, several early studies are now showing higher risk Covid-19 related infections and deaths in areas with high air pollution. In northern India, as air pollution levels rise during the winter, it will be important to stay alert.”

Saurabh Gandhi, general secretary, United Residents of Delhi, an umbrella body of more than 1,800 resident welfare associations (RWA), said: “The air pollution in Delhi is at pathetic levels. So, this (cracker ban) is a good step. However, the government must also crackdown on violations in construction sites, increase the area covered under mechanical sweeping of roads and conduct a fresh review of polluting industries.”

Criticising the Delhi government’s decision to ban firecrackers, including green crackers, the Bharatiya Janata Party said the government is looking at temporary solutions.

“The decision to ban firecrackers during Diwali and impose a fine of Rs 1 lakh is wrong. You have hurt the religious sentiments of the people of Delhi,” Delhi BJP chief Adesh Gupta said.

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