Delhi smog is back

Cocktail of pollutants and severe smog episodes can be deadly in Delhi and NCR even as Delhi government delays finalising air quality index

By Anumita Roychowdhury
Published: Thursday 07 November 2013

Winter smog is back with vengeance. Early onset of cool and calm weather coupled with Diwali aftermath and the daily dose of pollution has triggered severe smog. As soon as the weather turned unfavourable and the wind speed slowed down to near zero, the pollutants got trapped very close to the ground level that enveloped the city in a thick blanket of smog. Every winter, calm and cool weather make pollution hang heavy, but the severity of the smog depends on the actual pollution level that is already unacceptably high and rising. Though the policy discussion on next level of air pollution control has started, this needs to gather momentum to prevent such severe pollution episodes.

Diwali night on November 3 was bad enough. The real time air quality monitoring carried out by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee has shown that on that night while the minimum observed levels for particulate matter as well as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) increased, their peak levels remained within that of the last year’s Diwali. But higher minimum levels indicate widespread and high pollution across the city though the spikes were little lower. But the bigger concern was the high spike of sulphur dioxide on Diwali night. This gas, a bane for those suffering from respiratory and asthmatic problems, peaked to 1.4 times the standard. Such levels of sulphur dioxide are unheard of in Delhi. This indicates high level of sulpur compounds in crackers.

But there was no let up in pollution after Diwali as the wind speed and temperature dropped suddenly and the pollution could not be blown away. A choking haze of pollution developed on November 5. Several pollutants increased together. The PM2.5 levels exceeded the standard by 5-6 times. NO2 levels breached the standard. Peaks of carbon monoxide were unacceptable and benzene levels were high. Pollution during peak traffic hours was more severe than non-peak hours. Carbon monoxide that curdles the blood and comes almost entirely from traffic exceeded the one hour standards by 1.8 times during peak hours. Compared to non-peak levels, the evening peak of both PM2.5 and NO2 was three times higher. Even night time pollution was very high—PM 2.5 hit as high as 680 microgram per cubic metre. This is primarily due to movement of goods traffic and inversion conditions.

R K Jenamani, director at the India Meteorology Department told Down To Earth that the November 5 smog “was a combination of residual effect of high Diwali pollution as well as the daily pollution that could not disperse effectively due to calm weather condition”.

Doctors in the capital have informed media that there is an increase in hospital visits for respiratory symptoms. S K Chhabra, head of cardio respiratory department at the Vallabhbhai Patel Chest Institute in Delhi, further says, “there will also be a lag effect of the exposure now and hospital visits will increase with time to come.”

Delay in action

Once again Delhi is unprepared to deal with the winter dilemma. The process of putting in place both short-term as well as long-term pollution control measures that was started last winter to meet the clean air standard by 2017 is not complete yet. The draft clean air action plan finalised by the department of environment, Delhi, did not get the Cabinet nod. This has been sent back to the drawing board under the higher authority of the chief secretary for more detailing and for better coordination and cooperation of all the departments that are expected to implement multi-pronged strategies within their jurisdiction. The role of the department of environment is confined to dealing with the open burning of biomass, industrial and power plant pollution, but vehicles—the key polluters—are outside their jurisdiction. Delhi has lost crucial time to protect public health.

Proactive move

In the meantime, the Supreme Court appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority has taken steps to follow up with the neighbouring state governments to develop an action plan for the entire national capital region to clean up the air shed. In October this year, EPCA had proactively intervened to review the preparedness of the Delhi authorities as well as the state governments of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in the NCR to prevent smog episodes. All the authorities concerned are now required to submit action taken reports every week to monitor progress.

Some of the key action points include checking visibly polluting vehicles on roads at borders, especially diesel vehicles and vehicles entering Delhi; regular audit system for pollution under control (PUC) centres, strict enforcement of Supreme Court order restricting entry of goods vehicles, generators to comply with emission and noise norms; special vigil on in industrial areas; special vigil on biomass burning; proper dust control measures at major construction sites; and declaring paddy straw burning an offence in the region.

Fuming over farm fire
Once again the department of environment of the Delhi government has put out the NASA satellite picture to show the seasonal farm fires in Punjab agricultural fields, holding this to be responsible for the Delhi haze. But the chances of this contributing to such intense haze in Delhi this year are low. R K Jenamani, Director at the Indian Meteorology department says “Delhi smog is not due to agricultural crop burning inPunjab. The wind is blowing in the opposite direction—from east—Uttar Pradesh and Gwalior side. This is the post Diwali and local pollution that is trapped in the stable layer over Delhi-NCR.” Clearly, Delhi’s own pollution that is already very high and rising over the years has contributed towards this build up.

However, both Haryana and Punjab governments are in the process of firming up their policies to control farm fires. EPCA monitoring has revealed that the concerned state governments are providing incentive and subsidy to innovative farming methods and technologies already available to avoid stubble burning, and also promoting alternative uses of paddy straw. In Haryana, straw burning is prohibited since 2003 under Section 19 (5) of the Air (Prevention & Control of Pollution) Act of 1981, which prohibits burning of any material (not being fuel). The state government has increased the budget for subsidies on purchase of farm machinery. A study has been commissioned to Haryana Space Application Centre for estimation of burning of wheat/rice stubbles in four districts of Haryana.

The Punjab government has come up with a draft policy on management and utilisation of paddy straw, incorporating incentives for farm machinery, promoting biomass power projects based on combustion and bio-methanation, spreading awareness through different forms of media and other alternatives available with the objective of minimising this activity.

EPCA has also directed Punjab to immediately bring out notification to bring burning of agricultural residues under the provisions of Air Act 1981. EPCA has recommended that this activity be treated as a specific offence from environmental pollution point of view. EPCA directed Punjab to take up the matter and get the notification issued before rice harvesting.

In Uttar Pradesh, a cabinet note for issue of notification prohibiting straw burning under Air Act 1981 has been prepared and sent for approval. The challenge is that of effective and stringent enforcement.

Need public information system

Delhi government has also delayed finalising of air quality index and public health advisory that are needed to inform people about the severity of the daily air quality and the precaution that people must take to protect themselves from its harmful effects.

Other countries like the US, China, Mexico, France, Hong Kong among others have put in place such smog alert systems. During high pollution episodes, Paris authorities recommend drivers to postpone trips to Paris; or bypass Paris city; use public transport; organise car-pooling; minimise combustion of high sulphur fuels in industry; curtail industrial operations and so on. In Mexico, phase one pollution alert requires cutting down of 30-40 per cent of industrial pollution; halting of 50 per cent of government vehicles; stopping of most polluting vehicles; alternative fuel vehicles are exempted from restrictions. In phase 2 alert, schools are closed and one day a week ban on vehicles is extended to two days. Phase 3 alert leads to closing down of industry in addition to the other curtailment. Berlin does not allow older polluting vehicles in the city centre in any case. Other governments take daily pollution levels very seriously to protect public health.

Overall, action on vehicular pollution needs special focus in the region. NCR needs quick scaling up and integration of public transport systems and augmentation of walking and cycling facilities for green commuting. It needs to augment intercity public transport connectivity and effective bypassing of non-destined goods vehicles; fiscal and parking measures are needed to reduce usage of personal vehicles; and it must jump ahead on emissions standards roadmap for clean vehicles and fuels to cut emissions at source. Cities need to stop dieselisation to cut the toxic risk.

The region cannot afford yet another winter of wheeze and suffocation. Cocktail of pollutants and severe smog episodes can be deadly in Delhi and NCR already gasping for breath. This demands immediate and aggressive measures to reduce daily pollution.

NOTE: HS Chhabra now works at Sri Balaji Action Medical Institute as Chief of Spine and Rehabilitation Centre. He may be contacted at 

Smog Digest: January 2013

Emissions from crop/biomass residue burning risk to atmospheric quality

In the Supreme Court of India civil original jurisdiction i.a. no. Of 2012 in writ petition no. 13029 of 1985 on air pollution in Delhi

CSE warns Delhi: Do not dismiss winter smog as an act of God

Causes of emissions from agricultural residue burning in North-West India: evaluation of a technology policy response

Impact of agriculture crop residue burning on atmospheric aerosol loading – a study over Punjab State, India

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