Delhi pollution: Living in a gas chamber

Published: November 11, 2016 - 15:37 Updated: August 8, 2017 - 17:13

The day after Diwali the citizens of Delhi woke up to a city enveloped in lethal smog. We only have ourselves to blame

On the morning of October 31 while on their way to work Delhiites witnessed one of the worst sights of this year. The overnight Diwali celebrations in Delhi had turned the next morning’s atmosphere into an incinerator chamber. This was a scenario which everyone had anticipated subconsciously, but had never fully imagined or prepared for. The smoke, smog and the burning sensations scarred the memories of the festival for many. The pollutants released from the burning of firecrackers when mixed with the burning of crops in North Indian states during harvest times caused the whole region to be enveloped in a thick layer of grisly smog.

As per the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) the particulate matter level a.k.a PM 2.5 was recorded at over ten times its average limit at various points of the city. The high levels of particulate matter breached a 17 year old record making it the worst levels of smog recorded in the city with visibility of less than 200-300 meters.

The unexpected thick sheet of smog engulfed almost every part of the national capital. With little or no preparations to tackle such a situation it left both the central and state governments in a state of disarray. The government within next two to three days chalked out new rules which include a total ban on crackers other than for religious functions. According to a media report quoting an IIT Kanpur study which was conducted for the Delhi government, one of the biggest contributors of pollutants in Delhi is road dust that contributes over 30 percent, the reports indicate that heavy vehicles form the biggest chunk of these contributors. The government has now disallowed overloaded and non-destined trucks in the city to reduce traffic congestion. Meanwhile, all construction activities have been put on hold till November 14 along with complete shutdown of numerous smoke emitting industries.

As the unprecedented levels of pollutants turned chaotic with every hour, people started looking for ways to safeguard their lungs. As air purifiers are not practical and mobile, it led to a rise in sale of masks throughout the city. However, a major problem associated with the purchase of these masks was the high price which made the better quality masks limited to the people with the requisite purchasing power. Sanjay Singh of ARN Ortho Aid near AIIMS told Hardnews that “anti-pollution masks with air filters were sold between Rs 1800-2500 in first two days of November, these masks had a valve to allow the user to breathe out effectively.”

Meanwhile, the N-95 mask which is considered one of the best masks for proper respiration in polluted conditions was sold between Rs 80-200 during the first week of November, while PM 0.3 masks were sold at Rs 150. A PM 0.3 mask made up of nanofiber filter material claims to retain particulate matter over 0.3 μ, the masks however cannot be used by people having beards as it can’t form a sealed area around the face and thus breaks the filtration process.

Cloth masks which were less effective in this regard were available at Rs 60 while surgical masks with just a thin sheet to cover the mouth and nose were sold between Rs 10-30. Though the N-95 and PM 0.3 are the best masks in such a situation, they are to be changed within 5 days and the latter in 3 days of use making it a costly affair to purchase these masks again within weeks.

Due to the growing panic amongst people and high sale of these masks, it went out of stock within hours according to medical retailers. Shopkeepers in the Khan Market area said that they get masks from wholesalers who themselves had no stocks after two days. In many shops the masks were restocked two to three times everyday to meet the growing demand.   

Meanwhile, the Delhi government also suggested to the Centre to consider artificial rain over Delhi and the NCR region. In a recently concluded meeting between the Centre and state government, Delhi’s Environment Minister Imran Hussain said that “the Centre should consider artificial rains.” Union Environment Minister Anil Madhav Dave however indicated that there is a need to test and examine its workability before it is practiced.

While Diwali celebrations left Delhi paralysed, it has been facing an year round brunt of pollution for decades now. The widely praised initiative of Odd-Even was implemented twice in the city by the AAP government to reduce the level of pollutants emitted from vehicles. Though the initiative helped majorly in reducing traffic congestion it also led to a fall in the pollution levels during the two phases of its implementation. The government rejected the idea of implementing the Odd-Even scheme in November. While Delhi blamed the continuous burning of crops by farmers in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh to be a catalyst in the already worsened situation.

Though firecrackers appear harmless on first gaze, experts argue that they are one of the most lethal weapons against environment. In the combustion of fireworks, gunpowder gives rise to solid reactionary products like potassium carbonate, potassium sulphate and potassium sulphide together with unreacted sulphur. The solid reactionary products consists of oxides of metals which when mixed with environmental factors forms acidic solutions in the air which was witnessed in Delhi’s air. With the worsening of the breathable air Delhi topped the rankings on the list of most polluted cities of the world. 

While government agencies had high hopes of reduction in pollution levels following the ban on Chinese firecrackers which have higher content of Sulphur, things escalated, and despite a low sale of crackers this year in Delhi the toxic smog damaged many lungs.