Boys play football in a public park on a smoggy morning in New Delhi, India, November 2, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
Boys play football in a public park on a smoggy morning in New Delhi, India, November 2, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Malhar Kulkarni, 6, and his parents were preparing to send him to school last week, but soon desisted. As a deadly smog settled over Delhi, his parents decided to play it safe and packed him off to his grandparents who live in the western state of Maharashtra. “We didn’t want another year of the painful nebulizer,” his mother Mukta Kulkarni said, one of the thousands of parents in the city who had to take tough decisions last week as the air quality over India’s capital city climb to alarming levels.

Last week saw the air over the National Capital Region (NCR), an area that covers several cities spread over the three adjoining states of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana – turn into a poisonous gas chamber with long term health threats. Experts said that breathing this air is equivalent to smoking 45 cigarettes a day, which could lead to lung cancers as well as shorten lives by six to eight years. A public health calamity was at hand and all the governments and their various agencies were caught woefully unprepared.

The real time AQI (Air Quality Index) stood at 612 ‘Hazardous’ in central Delhi and continued to climb steadily. The Indian Medical Association (IMA) has already termed it as ‘medical emergency’. All of North-West India is in the grip reported alarming levels of smog. The All India Weather Warning Bulletin of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) warned of a continuing spell of smog over the north-western states – Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Government Apathy

The smog is an annual feature in Delhi, which registers one of the worst AQIs in the world throughout the year. This is due to a combination of factors, from generating particulate matter due to ongoing construction and diesel engine emissions, which turns the air into toxic gas. But the governments and their agencies at various levels failed to come together to combat this on a war footing.

Unlike Mumbai, which has a constant breeze thanks to its proximity to the sea, Delhi is a landlocked city and becomes a gas chamber where the colder air pushes down the pollution. A combination of factors leads to the high levels of pollution. From mineral dust on the  west, including the Thar desert,to the burning of stubble left behind by the paddy crop couple with emissions from vehicles and thermal power plants to form a deadly cocktail.  accumulate over large parts of north-western states. In the absence of wind velocity the pollutants remained trapped over large parts of North India. A noxious mix of dust particles, soot, carbon monoxide, ozone, Sulfur Oxide, Nitrogen oxide, designated as PM 2.5 and PM 10 turned large swathes across several states into poisonous gas chambers with long-term health hazards.

The larger share of the responsibility to address this issue fell on the federal government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Delhi, being the capital city comes largely under the federal government, which oversees its running through a Lieutenant Governor (LG). The various municipal corporations are currently ruled by the Bharatiya Janta Party’s (BJP) elected representatives. The state government, led by the opposition Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has limited powers, but is also responsible for combating the pollution. The other states, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have full-fledged state governments. All of them failed collectively and miserably to address a major public health threat. Naturally, instead of focusing on an action plan, the political parties descended into a public squabble.

Too Little, Too Late

As per the provisions of the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP), created after the intervention of the Supreme Court in December 2016 a series of counter measures should have been initiated. Unfortunately, by the time officials took a look at it, the poisonous smog had already descended on Northern India.

Dust from construction sites is a major polluter. The government banned all civil construction works in the capital. The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC), which has been constructing rapidly for over half a decade was a key polluter.

On November 9, Union Minister for Road Transport & Highways Nitin Gadkari directed that all road construction around Delhi had to take stringent steps. They started sprinkling of water at all construction sites and camps, covering dumpers transporting construction material and waste, and began enforcing air quality norms by all plants and machinery. 
Similar sprinkling of water has been undertaken by the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC), the civic body responsible for upkeep of the privileged areas where the federal government officials live.

But if these agencies knew these simple solutions would help, why didn’t they initiate them earlier?

Even the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), an agency directly under MoEF&CC, which can take punitive measures didn’t nudge. The Delhi, Haryana and Punjab Pollution Control Boards, that report to the state governments proved equally useless in taking preventive measures against the annual smog.

(First of a two-part series on the dangerous smog that has gripped North India)

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