In a surprising find, a study has revealed that pollution in Srinagar – the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir – hits dangerous levels during winter months as the air carries five times more tiny particulate matter than the permissible limit, with the experts terming it a worrying development.
The study, jointly conducted by a team of scientists from Pune-based Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) and University of Kashmir, found that the air quality deteriorates significantly during the winters in the city, known as one of the world's major tourist destination and also for its pristine environment.
"Long term monitoring of fine particulate matter, PM2.5, responsible for deteriorating human health, has been done and the results indicate that air quality of the capital city Srinagar deteriorates significantly during the winter," the study, conducted between May 2013 and April 2014 and the report of which was released recently, said.
It found that PM 2.5 levels in winter touched 348 micro-grams per cubic metre – five times higher than the national permissible limit of 60 micro-grams per cubic metre, mainly due to the use of coal for domestic purpose.
"The level of PM2.5 touches a peak value of 348 micro-grams per cubic metre against the Indian permissible limit of 60 micro-grams per cubic metre. The emissions due to domestic coal usage are found to be 1246.4 tons/year, which accounts for 84 per cent of the total annual emissions," it said.
On some days, the air pollution in Srinagar is worse than that of Delhi and overall as bad as Kolkata.
"While the overall pollution in Srinagar (in winter) is as bad as in Kolkata, on some days, it is as bad or worse than Delhi," Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, Head Department of Earth Sciences at Kashmir University, and one of the authors of the study, said.
He said what was worrying was that the air quality in Srinagar is worst among all Himalayan states in the country.
"There are inter-annual variations. The dry weather in winter months spikes up the pollution levels, while it decreases whenever there is rainfall or snowfall," Romshoo said.
The study revealed that cold temperatures with dry conditions along with elevated level of biofuel emissions from domestic sector are found to be the major processes responsible for winter period particulate pollution.
"The emission from vehicular combustion is 220.5 tons/year which accounts for 15 per cent of the total annual emissions, followed by the emissions from fuel wood burning that is around 8.06 tons/year – one per cent," it said, adding that westerly winds originating from Afghanistan and surrounding areas also contribute to the high PM2.5 levels.
The study said high altitude destinations around the world are perceived to have a clean environment and have become preferred places for tourist attractions, but such places are slowly found to be environmentally degrading due to ever increasing tourists and associated emissions.
"The geographical location of the region also plays an important role, which may result in long-range transport of pollutants…In recent times, the Kashmir Valley has become the largest urban centre across the whole Himalayan region and is undergoing areal expansion and facing high rates of population growth.
"The increased urbanisation and the increased use of biofuels in the valley are disturbing the environment. Studies show that lower mixing heights, limited dispersion and long-range transport of pollutants results in higher pollution levels during winter, as the pollutants get trapped in the lower layers of the atmosphere," the study said.
It, however, says during the summer, autumn and spring seasons, the values of PM2.5 are between the range 20–50?micro-grams per cubic metre, which are well within the permissible limits.
Romshoo said the government needs to immediately take measures to check the pollution and the major step was to harness the vast hydro-power potential which would reduce the dependability on conventional sources especially in the winters.
"There a lot of other steps that need to be taken and definitely more at the government level. One of the main sources of pollution is open burning for charcoal. The government's responsibility is to build technical capacity of the people. You have to make charcoal, no doubt on that, but there are technologies that you need to transfer to the people so that they do not openly burn this.
"The other sources of pollutants are dusty roads here. A large proportion of roads is not macadamised here. We need to macadamise as much road length as possible,” he said.
Romshoo said the number of cars on the roads needs to be decreased to check emission of fossil fuels.
"Every year, J-K adds up to 1.5 lakh vehicles. We are forced to use our own vehicles because of the lack of very efficient transport system," he said.
The pollution levels are worrying and should be a matter of great concern, he added.