3.8 million deaths occur every year – mostly in low- and middle-income countries – as a result of household exposure to smoke from dirty cookstoves and fuels.
“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. ... Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? ... And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”
In his seminal set of novels ‘In Search of Lost Time,’ Marcel Proust invoked the idea of involuntary memory with his famous “Madeleine moment.” Delhi provides for similar ‘delights.’
In Delhi, this time of the year, when your eyes start tearing up; your throat is itchy; your voice is hoarse; you are out of breath when you walk just a few hundred metres; you are coughing for no apparent reason; and when your inhalers seem to run out because you are coughing relentlessly thanks to your asthma acting up for no reason, you stop for a moment to ask the same questions that Proust asked about this “new sensation.” Like a jigsaw puzzle in a fast-motion video, the Proustian questions line up with answers thus:
“Whence did it come?”
“Probably Haryana or Punjab or Uttar Pradesh. Maybe all of the above,”
“What did it mean?”
“Crops are burning; smog is forming; lungs are (probably) dying.”
“How could I seize and apprehend it?”
“Damned if I know.”
It is November, and the sense of déjà vu in Delhi is physical and utterly unpleasant. Like James Bond in Moonraker, The Smog appears “with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.” Why the smog? Why Delhi? How bad is the smog? Is it inevitable?
These will be among the questions we will hope to answer on this edition of our Pick of the Day. On this episode of Editor's Story of the day, we hope to get some clarity through the veil of deadly smog that has settled upon Delhi skies.
Severe. That is the reading on the meter. And the writing on the wall. Delhi is not in a good place – meteorologically and topographically. A thick blanket of smog and dust continue to choke the national capital as air quality in a number of areas has fallen to the ‘Severe’ category. Air quality in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) on Tuesday deteriorated further after an overnight spike in Particulate Matter (PM).
The overall Air Quality Index (AQI) at 3 PM on Tuesday, as reported on The Times of India, was 401, falling in the 'severe' category, the highest overall AQI this season. The AQI for Ghaziabad was worst in the entire NCR region at 444 points, up by 14 points from Monday and remains in the "severe" category. In Gurugram, the AQI was 422, while it was 410 in Noida.
On Saturday, five areas recorded severe pollution levels. They include Anand Vihar, Dwarka Sector 8, Narela, Punbjabi Bagh and Rohini. In Anand Vihar, the AQI was recorded to be 841, the highest in the capital. It was at 708 in Mundka, 644 in Wazirpur and 630 in Rohini, according to Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) data.
The AQI considers eight pollutants – PM10, PM2.5, NO2, SO2, CO, O3, NH3, and Lead. PM2.5 is the presence of particles in the air with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres, while PM10 is the presence of particles in the air with a diameter of less than 10 microns, and both are considered the major atmospheric pollutants. PM2.5, in particular, poses greater harm as its fine particles can easily be inhaled into the respiratory tract.
For reference, AQI between 0 and 50 is considered 'good', 51 and 100 'satisfactory', 101 and 200 'moderate', 201 and 300 'poor', 301 and 400 'very poor', and 401 and 500 'severe'. For comparison, at 12 noon today, Delhi had an AQI of 378, Kanpur 395; Bangalore was at 105, and Chennai at 43. (At the time of writing this, in the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium area, the AQI reading is 487! The forecast for today is 357 PM10.)
On the 30th of October, Delhi’s overall Air Quality Index (AQI) was recorded at 442 (NDTV). Experts predict that the situation is likely to remain this way over the course of the next few days. Farms in Punjab have seen a rise in crop residue burning over the weekend; add to that winds slowing down in much of north India, and what we have is a lethal cocktail they call the Delhi Smog. Satellite pictures released by NASA show a band of haze stretched from across the border in Pakistan to Agra in western Uttar Pradesh.
A Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) official, speaking to Hindustan Times, said, “It is because of unfavourable meteorological conditions that air quality has worsened. A cyclonic circulation over Odisha is blocking winds, as a result of which the wind speed [in north India] has dropped as has the ‘ventilation index’ (which determines how fast pollutants get dispersed). Mist in the morning and pollutants from stubble burning regions of neighbouring states are making the air toxic.”
In their Air Pollution Report Card of Feb 2018, the Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority for Delhi (EPCA) and Centre for Science and Environment wrote, “Air pollution, we know is a factor, of sources of emissions, from combustion to dust and also weather. Delhi and its surrounding regions have high pollution levels in winter, because of the drop in temperature and the inversion that takes place.
This traps the pollutants close to the ground and does not allow dispersion. This is why we need to monitor wind speed and direction – as winds from west (from beyond Afghanistan, via Punjab) can bring dust or crop residue burning and winds from east can bring moisture. This can combine to create smog incidents, as we have seen in the November of 2017.”
It is the same situation come 2018 as well. Farmers in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana set fire to the stubble left from paddy harvest so they can keep the land ready for the next round of sowing (which generally begins from November 10), and one easy way of doing so is to burn the stubble rather than invest in machinery to clear them.
Both the state and central governments have tried to solve the problem through assistive as well as punitive measures, but year after year, the problem resurfaces, causing immeasurable health and economic damage. Add to this already hazardous situation Diwali and accompanying fireworks, the air already stagnant due to meteorological conditions will get further heavier and more difficult to disperse thanks to the toxic chemicals from the firecrackers. In other words, it is only likely to get worse.
An official of the Punjab Pollution Control Board said a spike in crop-burning occurs again during Diwali time. “Many farmers will try to burn paddy straw by terming it as incidental fire,” he said to HT. Last Sunday alone, there were 3,162 cases of fire reported. “The farmers took advantage of a holiday when officials were not on field visits,” said Kahan Singh Pannu, Punjab’s agriculture secretary to HT. He said senior officials now carry out inspections on holidays as well.
According to the 2015 IIT Kanpur Report on air pollution in Delhi, the overall contribution of biomass burning to particulate pollution during winter is fairly high—17 per cent for PM10 and 26 per cent for PM2.5. Emissions from crop residue burning contribute to this. (EPCA Winter Report Card, 2018) PM2.5, in particular, poses greater harm as its fine particles can easily be inhaled into the respiratory tract.
Stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana contributed to 32 per cent of Delhi's overall pollution on Saturday, according to a report by the Centre-run System of Air Quality Forecasting and Research (SAFAR). On Wednesday, stubble burning contributed to 22 percent of PM2.5 pollution in the national capital.
Preemptive measures to contain air pollution – likely to worsen in the next ten days – may force a partial shutdown of Delhi between the 1st and 10th of November.The Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) has urged Delhiites to use public transport for the first 10 days of November to keep a check on pollution. Noting that private vehicles contribute to 40 per cent pollution in Delhi-NCR, the EPCA urged people to reduce the use of private vehicles during this period and use public transport or other means.
- No excavation or civil construction in Delhi-NCR between November 1 and 10
- All polluting stone crushers and hot mix plants to stop between November 1 and 10
- Industries using coal and biomass as fuel to stop between November 4 and 10
- No use of diesel generator sets in the capital
- Brick kilns in NCR will be closed between November 1 and 10
- Mundka industrial area to remain closed between November 1 and 10
The CPCB has started Facebook and Twitter accounts where residents can lodge complaints pertaining to garbage burning, unpaved roads etc. The government has cancelled leaves of environment department officials. The Delhi Metro has already introduced 21 additional trains that would provide 812 additional trips.
The civic agencies are, however, yet to increase parking fees, a measure listed under GRAP (Graded Response Action Plan), even though air quality has been in very poor category for more than a week now. The transport department has also not introduced any extra buses to increase availability of public transport.
Last week, Union Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan had said the government had decided to initiate criminal prosecution against agencies which failed to comply with directives to check air pollution. The Environment Ministry's decision had come after a review meeting with 41 teams of the CPCB deployed in Delhi, Ghaziabad, Noida, Gurgaon and Faridabad found the compliance rate of the agencies concerned in following the directives was "very poor”. (Firstpost)
The Delhi government says it is ready to revisit the Odd-Even scheme if the situation continues to deteriorate. The city’s vehicles – there are about 35 lakh private vehicles in Delhi – cause enough damage without the added burden of stubble burning. It was during a similar time in 2016 when the Odd-Even scheme was tried twice – 1-15 January and 15-30 April.
The Delhi government has also decided to organise a Clean Air Week between the 1st and 5th of November. An initiative with the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and other NCR cities, Clean Air Week will bring together 52 teams along with the local police to take action against polluters in New Delhi and its neighbouring cities including Gurugram, Faridabad, Noida and Ghaziabad.
Teams have also been formed to ensure safety on the roads of Delhi-NCR. Each team would have a senior official from MoEFCC and representatives from Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). 44 of these teams are based out of Delhi and other cities will have 2 teams each supported by the local police.
The teams will also ensure that the repeat offenders are taken seriously by ensuring criminal proceedings, and that citizens abide by the restrictions placed on fireworks. This brings us to Diwali and the recent Supreme Court ruling.
Diwali situation - Supreme Court order
Adding to this mess is the festival of lights. It may symbolise the victory of light over darkness, but in practice, it has just come to be a loud terror for dogs. To say nothing of the hazard they are to lungs.
Next time you spot a vehement anti-smoking vigilante bursting crackers, remind them that according to some estimates, laris – strings of 1,000 or more crackers – can be as dangerous as smoking over 270 cigarettes. Some analysts claim that the black-coloured pellet, which spews out a 'snake' when lit, can be as harmful as inhaling smoke from 464 cigarettes.
About a week ago, the two judge bench constituting Justices AK Sikri and Ashok Bhushan, ruled that firecrackers can be used only between specific hours on Deepavali. And not just Diwali, the court extended the ruling to other occasions as well, like Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
The order says firecrackers can only be used between 8.00 pm and 10.00 pm during Diwali, and between 11.45 pm and 12.45 am during Christmas and New Year’s. Two days ago, it modified its ruling on the time slots during which people can use fireworks this Diwali, and allowed states to set timings. However, the two-hour limit will remain.
“Timing for bursting firecrackers in places like Tamil Nadu, Puducherry will be changed, but not exceed 2 hours a day,” the court said. In Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and other southern states, fireworks can be used from 4 am-5 am and from 9 pm-10 pm during festivals, the apex court said.
The bench also clarified that its October 23 judgment, on use of “green” crackers this Diwali, was only meant for Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR). It will, however, apply across the country from next year.
What are the health hazards of air pollution??
The statistics are alarming and perhaps even well-known, but they need repeating.
According to the WHO, there are 4.2 million deaths each year as a result of exposure to outdoor air pollution – mainly from heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and acute respiratory infections in children. Worldwide ambient air pollution accounts for 43 percent of all deaths and disease from COPD, 25 percent of all deaths and disease from ischemic heart disease, 29 percent of all deaths from lung cancer.
3.8 million deaths occur every year – mostly in low- and middle-income countries – as a result of household exposure to smoke from dirty cookstoves and fuels.
91 percent of the world’s population lives in places where air quality exceeds WHO guideline limits.
Pollutants with the strongest evidence for public health concern include particulate matter (PM), ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) – all of which are accounted for in the AQI, and all of which are rising astronomically in the Delhi air. Particulate Matter, especially, can cause a wide range of health problems.
Particulate matter is capable of penetrating deep into lung passageways and entering the bloodstream causing cardiovascular, cerebrovascular and respiratory impacts. In 2013, it was classified as a cause of lung cancer by WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Ultrafine particles (less than a micron in diameter) pose just as great a health risk as they are capable of penetrating tissues and organs.
An alarming new study presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress warns that inhaled particulate matter is moving from lungs to placentas of pregnant women. These particles do not need to get into the foetus to have adverse effects.
Their penetration into the placenta – which nurtures the growing foetus – is enough to have an impact on the growth and development of the baby. A multi-country study in 2013 found mothers who are exposed to air pollution of the sort produced by vehicles and power plants are more likely to bear children of low birth weight.
Low birth weight is among the leading causes of infant and child mortality in India. While certainly true that India is making strides in reducing under-five children mortality, it is also true that a million children under five die annually. Emerging new evidence also suggests ambient air pollution may be causative of diabetes and affect neurological development in children.
Air pollution also negatively affects brain development during childhood, lowering children’s chances of success in school and employment possibilities later in life. There is research to indicate that pollution can lower children’s IQ, hurt their test scores and increase the risks of autism and epilepsy.
The alarm bells are ringing at such a high decibel that Geneva only yesterday saw the conclusion of the first WHO Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health.
In a new op-ed for The Guardian, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the WHO, calls air pollution the “new tobacco,” and urges that we must scale up action to urgently respond to this challenge. An alarming thought – Dr Arvind Kumar, chest surgeon and founder of Lung Care Foundation, speaking at the WHO conference, said there are no non-smokers in the country. “There are 51 newborn smokers per minute in India,” he said.
Are we already past the tipping point?
No, but we are frighteningly close to a point of no return. In certain health aspects, we may well have reached it. In a landmark 2004 study, researchers showed that children raised in parts of Los Angeles – whose pollution levels are not a patch on Delhi’s – faced significant and probably permanent losses of lung function.
Even children who eventually moved to less polluted places during childhood never seemed to entirely recover from earlier high pollution exposures, another study went on to demonstrate. A landmark 2015 study which tracked 11,000 schoolchildren in Delhi for three years showed that nearly half of the city’s 4.4 million schoolchildren have irreversible lung damage from the poisonous air.
The study concluded: “It is unlikely that the deficits in lung function at the age of 17 years that has been found in a large number of schoolchildren of Delhi will be reversed as they complete the transition into adulthood.”
Reduced lung capacity in adults is a highly accurate predictor of early death and disability, some studies show, going so far as to say, it is more accurate than even elevated blood pressure and cholesterol.
Some people have chosen the easy avoidance route – given the mountain of evidence about the inhospitality, they have put paid to their Delhi dreams and simply moved elsewhere. A literal No Return policy.
Sarath Guttikunda, one of India’s top pollution researchers, who moved to Goa from Delhi, speaking to The New York Times was quite clear: “If you have the option to live elsewhere, you should not raise children in Delhi.” This was what Gardiner Harris, the South Asia correspondent of The New York Times did – his son’s asthma was getting worse, and he saw no feasible way of continuing to live in Delhi.
Even medical ethicists are baffled. Several of them have gone on record to say it would be impossible to get approval for a clinical trial to send a group of children to Delhi to monitor their health. Speaking to The New York Times, “Not a chance,” said Adil E. Shamoo, editor in chief of Accountability in Research and a bioethicist at the University Of Maryland School Of Medicine. “It’s O.K. to survey people already there, but moving children into harm’s way? No.”
In Beijing, when PM2.5 levels exceeded 500, they made international headlines. In parts of Delhi, they routinely go past 1000.
So yes, in a sense, the damage that we have done to the air in Delhi has in turn done some irreversible damage to our bodies.
But is not all bad news.
The silver lining in a very dark cloud
A rise in awareness is a good start. In a way, news reports which talk about how glorious India is home to the top 14 of the 15 most polluted cities in the world hit where it hurts most – the nationalistic spirit of a large majority of Indians. Swachh Bharat or not, the reports are damning. Perhaps these reports could be an emotive call to action.
There is a lot that we can do to improve air quality, but we must all play our part. No individual person or group or city or region can solve the problem on their own. It is the air we all breathe, so the problem is all ours, and the solution must, by definition, involve all of us.
We need strong commitments and actions from everyone: government decision-makers, community leaders, mayors, civil society, the private sector and even the individual. It will take time and endurance but we all have a critical role to play.
Global commitments like the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Climate Accord, and the Urban Agenda 2030 were all made for a reason, and India’s policymakers must be held accountable to toe the lines that have been drawn through these agreements.
India will aim to reduce air pollution by 20 percent to 30 percent by 2024, an environment ministry official said on the sidelines of the Air Pollution and Health summit in Geneva. Satyendra Kumar, deputy secretary at the environment ministry, said during his presentation at the WHO summit, "We are committed to bring PM10 and PM 2.5 levels down in definite percent terms by 2024."
He said this would be a part of the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) for 102 cities, called non-attainment cities, that consistently flout air pollution norms. They may forget these promises made, but as citizens (and as victims of our own doing), we must hold them accountable.
Climate change, global warming, rising pollution due to burning of fossil fuels by automobiles, unchecked urbanisation and industrialisation, worsening public health parameters and the impact of morbidity on the national economy are all connected.
It is important that our governing bodies pay attention to the research that is out there and act along the lines drawn – and we must play our part in ensuring that they do. This is the job we elected them to do.
The United Nations Environment Program outlined 25 measures that could easily reduce air pollution. According to the report, effectively implementing the 25 measures would result in a 20 percent reduction in carbon dioxide and a 45 percent reduction in methane emissions, preventing up to a third of a degree Celsius in global warming.
Resulting reductions in ground-level ozone would reduce crop losses by 45 percent for maize, rice, soy and wheat combined. The analysis takes the region’s diversity into account and covers sectors such as industry (eg, post-combustion controls), transport (promoting the use of EVs, ensuring low-sulphur fuels in international shipping, enforcing mandatory checks and repairs for vehicles), agriculture (strict enforcement of bans on open burning), power generation, residential cooking, heating and lighting etc.
Returning to our topic of the day, that is air pollution in Delhi, there are certain advances we are already making.
On the vehicular pollution front, the SC, in 2017, banned the sale of BS III vehicles in the country. The government of India, in a rare move, has decided to leapfrog into BS VI for all vehicles in 2020. It is also the first time in the world that BS-VI norms will be implemented for two-and three-wheelers.
This will introduce particulate standards and also separate standard for NOx and HC. MOPNG had decided to advance supply of BS-VI fuels in Delhi to April 2018
The SC banned the use of Pet Coke (PC) and Furnace Oil (FO) for combustion in the states of Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, and also fixed the standards for NOx and SOx.
The Badarpur power plant has been permanently closed as of July 2018.
Report of High Level Task Force, set up by PMO accepted; I1200 crore provided in budget for action on crop residue burning.
About 1500 brick kiln owners have submitted affidavits to EPCA undertaking commitment to shift to improved-zigzag kiln technology by April 2018. Roughly 600 had converted as of February 2018.Of course, more needs to be done, and soon. The EPCA concludes its Winter Report with these measures:
- Massive augmentation of public transport so that people do not have to use their cars.
- Massive move towards cleaner fuels like natural gas or electricity generated from cleaner sources, including renewables.
- Massive efforts to enforce and implement directions for not burning of garbage and dust management. Currently, we do not segregate waste at the household level and this is adding to the crisis of waste burning in the country.
- Massive efforts to subsidize farmer’s technologies that will allow them to re-plough the straw into the ground.
Take care of your health
And finally, take care of your health. If you suffer from a debilitating respiratory illness and can afford to leave the city for a less-polluted place for the time-being, no time like now to cash that privilege.
The homophonically aptly titled SAFAR (System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research) also gave a health advisory to the public due to increasing pollution levels. The recommendations of the health advisory asked people with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children to avoid prolonged or heavy exertion. It also recommended people to go for shorter walks instead of jogs, keeping windows closed and wearing masks while stepping outside.
Asthamtics, you can afford to leave your keys and phone and wallet behind at home, but not your inhalers. Keep them handy, and keep extra supplies ready as well.
Wearing masks is a good idea. Effective masks are available at local pharmacies for about 150 rupees – wear them when you are out and about in the world.
Domestic air purifiers are a good albeit expensive idea. Some plants, like Areca, Lady Palm, Bamboo Palm etc, are known to be air purifying. Get them. Even if they do nothing, they are plants – no harm, no foul. Avoid sweeping the floor at home – it causes dust to rise – stick to mopping.
See a doctor if things seem to be worsening. If it is an option, try working from home.
The image of the sprawling Raj Path, street lamps dotting the stretch, with India Gate on one end and the magnificent Rashtrapati Bhawan on the other, all covered in a diaphanous haze certainly makes for a grand picture – something straight out of a Gothic romance novel. Sadly however, lungs suffer in both the Gothic romance novel (whose greatest villain is the consumption) and the national capital.
The air we breathe should not be a luxury, and yet it is. Every November, diatribes like mine get written, and token noises are mumbled, videos go viral, and promises get made. A few months out, it’s out of our memory. We began this piece with the idea of involuntary memory. Let’s make a collective pact to include Wanting To Do Better as part of our individual voluntary memories.We all breathe the same air. The struggle to get it to be clean must be all ours, too.