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Airpocalypse In The National ‘Choking’ Region: AQI In Delhi More Than 60 Times Higher Than International Limit

With the smothering pollution level in Delhi, it is high-time a sustainable, permanent solution is devised to combat this crisis. According to an AQI reading taken at India Gate on the morning of November 8th, the PM 2.5 reading was as high as 1501, which is 60 times the international standard of 25 microgram per cubic meter for PM 2.5.”

As the capital of India chokes with its deteriorating air quality, the Arvind Kejriwal government has demanded alternate solutions to crop burning, which is seen by most as the villain in this pollution crisis. The National Green Tribunal has also asked the Delhi government to implement solutions like triggering artificial rain and banning of old diesel and petrol vehicles in Delhi.

Punjabi Bagh continues to lead the pollution levels, with an AQI of 999 (the highest measurable recording, the actual figure might be much more), of PM 2.5 and PM 10. R.K. Puram also has periodically shown an AQI of 999, fluctuating between 850 and 999 for PM 2.5 and PM 10.


In this broad snapshot of India, it is clear that 999 is the highest level in India, which is in New Delhi, while neighbouring north regions also show hazardous levels of pollution, as anything above 300 is considered hazardous, for PM 2.5 and PM 10. Even cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai etc. show a much lower level of pollution as compared to NCR, despite urbanization and concentration of vehicles in these cities.

Delhi’s AQI level is more than 6 times higher than that of Mumbai, as per the AQI monitoring station in Bandra, Mumbai which shows a reading ranging from 145-160.  The only place is India which falls in the ‘good air quality’ bracket is Durgapur, which showed an AQI reading of 33. However this is because many regions in India do not have monitoring stations, hence it is difficult to measure the air quality in numerous regions in India.

As the toxic haze engulfs the national capital region, surpassing the levels of Beijing, the government has announced that the odd-even scheme will be reinstated next week onwards, to combat the rising levels of pollution. According to an AQI reading taken at India Gate on the morning of November 8th, the PM 2.5 reading was as high as 1501, which is 60 times the international standard of 25 micrograms per cubic meter for PM 2.5.

(Source: Ayesha Sood, Help Delhi Breathe, 9 AM India Gate, 8th November)

With smog levels and concentration of carcinogens rising 10 times higher than that of Beijing, the situation has been declared as a public health emergency by the Indian Medical Association.

Mr Nandakumar, Senior General Manager of 3M India Personal Safety Division, has said, “In anticipation of the demand and based on last years’ situation, we have ensured sufficient stocks through our online channels, modern trade partners, as well as with chemists. The most popular respirator is the N-95, which is tested at 0.3-micron size particulate, with a minimum efficiency of 95%. In the dire eventuality of a pandemic of any nature, 3M company hubs from across the Asia and/or global region step up to ensure the protection of our people, by supplying as much as is required”, with regards to respiratory masks provided by them, which are in dire need right now.

“Exposure to bad air quality may lead to initial symptoms like coughing, irritation in eyes, asthma or wheezing, tiredness. But prolonged exposure, in the long run, may have serious consequences on our health like stroke, Ischemic heart disease, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and even lung cancer”, said Vinay Pathak, Subject Matter Expert - 3M Asia Pacific Region.

The air quality index in Beijing, which has often been referred to as the most polluted city is around 159 for PM 2.5 and PM 10, which is still in the unhealthy category, but way below that of Delhi, which is in the ‘hazardous’ category. The AQI reading in New Hampshire, USA is 2, while in Newburgh, New York it is at 124. Other places in New York still fall in the safe category of between 0-50. One place which has an AQI level comparable to Delhi in North America is Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico, with an AQI reading of 814. Some places at the threshold of pollution levels, showing AQI readings of 999 like Delhi are Shexian EPA-Handan (China), Incline (Sharon-Carmel, Israel) and Igdir (Turkey).

However, the situation in Delhi remains dire, with residents complaining of coughing, headaches and irritation in the eyes. All 6,000 schools in Delhi have been closed until the end of the week. There is an urgent need for carbon sequestration agents through reforestation and air-purifiers in the region, to absorb some of the pollution. The efficacy of the odd-even scheme can only be determined at the end of the next week or so. Some knee-jerk reactions like the stopping of construction and the raising of the car-parking fee to encourage public transport will only temporarily dampen the problem, while there is a need for permanent solutions to the core of the issue, which is crop-burning in the neighbouring states.

Regarding the NGT ban on construction and industrial activities in Delhi NCR till November 14, Nawneet Vibhaw, ‎Associate Partner (Environmental Advisory & Dispute Resolution) at Khaitan & Co. said, “While it is an emergency and therefore knee-jerk reactions are expected, it is unfortunate that we are still reactive and not proactive to prepare for situations like these. Banning construction activities for five days or bringing in the Odd-even rule are not sustainable solutions. This mess that we have created is the cumulative result of numerous factors and hence it is difficult to blame it on a particular activity or sector. We already have the Construction and Demolition Waste Management Rules 2016 in place. Hence violators of such a law must be stopped and not those builders who are in complete compliance with all the applicable laws. But then serious ailments do require strong medicines. The authorities need to come together and do some serious planning and implementation. It is unfortunate that it has been two years and we still think odd-even is the solution to our woes”.

The CM of Punjab, Capt. Amarinder Singh complained that his meeting with Delhi CM, Kejriwal will not resolve anything as he doesn’t understand the situation and that the Prime Minister should chair the meeting over the stubble burning, which is seen as the primary cause of the crisis. While the blame game between Chief Ministers, farmers, NGT continues, no sustainable solution has been devised yet.

About policy changes required, Anmol Soin, Managing Editor of Initiative for Policy Research and Analysis has said, “Blaming farmers and car users isn’t enough. There needs to be a new farmer incentivization model driven by the central government backed by strong penalization model run by the states. In terms of car pollution and industrial pollution, let’s be honest, the laws exist and the safeguards exist. Now, we need new rules and models of implementation that are focused on correction, not just prevention. At this point in time, air pollution laws were last updated in the early 90s or late 80s. We need legislation that reflects the complexities of the world we live in”.

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