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From clear blue skies to gas chamber: Delhi air pollution in 2019 is a tale of contrasting headlines

While Delhiites made a beeline for masks and air purifiers, a businessman opened up an “Oxygen Bar” claiming it could help reduce mental fatigue, sleep disorders, blood pressure issues and stress. (Reuters)

Blue October skies gave Delhi hope of cleaner air this winter, but just when everyone thought the city ducked the pollution problem, a cocktail of emissions from local sources and stubble burning turned the city into a “gas chamber” again, prompting authorities to shut schools and declare a health emergency. Just days after Diwali, air pollution soared to “emergency levels” for a second time in 2019, forcing the Supreme Court to hold an emergency hearing to find an “immediate solution” to the crisis and the Prime Minister’s Office to convene high-level meetings.

Citing a Central Pollution Control Board report, the Delhi government in September claimed its efforts had led to a 25-per cent decrease in air pollution in the last four years and Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal posted pictures of clear, blue Delhi skies from his official Twitter account. He even shared the “success story” on air pollution at C40 World Mayors Summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, which he addressed through video conferencing. The city government and pollution control bodies took early steps, including rigorous night patrolling and enforcement measures, to check polluting activities ahead of the peak pollution period.

The Arvind Kejriwal government also organised a mega laser show in an effort to dissuade people from bursting crackers. However, a large number of people brazenly flouted the Supreme Court-enforced two-hour limit for bursting crackers this year too. Green pyrotechnics also failed to draw good response both from sellers and buyers, primarily due to lack of variety, limited stock and high prices. The Centre for Science and Environment said fireworks on Diwali played an “overwhelming” role in deteriorating air quality.

Then came November, the skies hung heavy and acrid over the national capital and its suburbs with the air quality dipping to the hazardous “severe plus” category, prompting the Supreme Court-mandated Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority to step in and declare a public health emergency. As smog enveloped the city in grey for days, schools remained shut, people moved around with masks and others stayed resolutely indoors in what could well be a dystopian nightmare come true.

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Environmentalists wrote to the BCCI, urging it to move the November 3 India-Bangladesh T20 outside Delhi. Schoolchildren and activists protested across the city and demanded Prime Minister Narendra Modi to intervene. The political blame game intensified as pollution levels rose. Chief Minister Kejriwal held stubble burning in neighboring states, especially Haryana and Punjab, for making Delhi a “gas chamber”.

The government’s air quality and forecasting service, SAFAR, said the share of farm fires in Delhi’s pollution peaked to 44 per cent on November 1. CPCB data showed farm fires increased significantly in Punjab, while Haryana reported a decline in stubble burning. The Supreme Court stepped in and reprimanded the states for burning stubble. It asked them to provide financial support to farmers so that they can manage crop residue.

The apex court also banned construction and demolition activity till December 10. The AAP government brought in the third edition of the odd-even road space rationing scheme, but experts and the apex court questioned its effectiveness. Intermittent meteorological relief — rains and high-velocity winds — came as huge respite for the city, which desperately scoured for solutions to the air pollution problem.

While Delhiites made a beeline for masks and air purifiers, a businessman opened up an “Oxygen Bar” claiming it could help reduce mental fatigue, sleep disorders, blood pressure issues and stress. Municipal bodies came out with anti-smog gun, a cannon shaped device that sprays atomised water droplets in the air. The gun is attached to a water tank built on a movable vehicle, which can be taken to various parts of the city.

The Supreme Court also asked the Centre and the city government to constructing a giant smog tower in the city, on the lines of China’s largest air purification tower in Xi’an. But environmentalist and experts say the “expensive and inefficient” smog towers will only benefit manufactures and sellers. According to CSE director Sunita Narain, in the past three years, critical steps have been taken – from a ban on coal usage in Delhi to moving towards cleaner fuel for vehicles and reducing gross-polluting truck traffic – and it is bending the pollution curve. But these are not enough.

One positive takeaway this year was a greater awareness among people of the problem, but experts say it will take at least five years before any major improvements can be seen in the air quality of Delhi-NCR. Sustainable solutions to manage stubble, curb on emissions from power plants, clean-fuel based industries, a strengthened public transport system and greater public awareness are needed to prevent the city from becoming a “gas chamber” yet again.

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Source: Financial Express