Don't Choke, India!

Pollution peaks during Diwali. The air becomes toxic and smog engulfs most north Indian cities. But there are ways to reduce pollution. The governments and the Supreme Court are doing their bit. The citizens can chip in too

Saptak Choudhury Published Oct 26, 2019 00:00:00 IST
Don't Choke, India! Will Delhi see this level of pollution again this year? (Image used for representative purposes only)

Every year, air quality plummets in and around most of the major cities in India during Diwali. Last year was no different. After the Supreme Court order stipulating the time for bursting crackers (8 p.m. to 10 p.m.) was violated in several cities across India (Delhi-NCR, Mumbai, Chennai, Guwahati, among others), the results were catastrophic, especially in Delhi. Places such as Anand Vihar recorded Air Quality Index (AQI) levels of 999, while areas such as Lutyens’ Delhi, I. P. Extension and Mayur Vihar Extension saw PM2.5 levels of 805 the morning after Diwali.

These events unfolded after a dire WHO report was released on the sidelines of the first Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health. The report, titled Air pollution and child health: Prescribing clean air and released on 29 October 2018, highlighted the fact that over 1 lakh children died in India due to air pollution, both ambient and household, in 2016. The global report estimates that 6 lakh children around the world died due to acute lower respiratory infections (ALRI) from air pollution in 2016. This estimate constitutes nearly 10 per cent of the child deaths that occurred that year. More shockingly, at least 5.4 lakh of these children were below the age of 5 years.

With our blatant disregard for environment-protection and anti-pollution laws as well as our rigid adherence to harmful practices like crop/stubble burning, it comes as no surprise that several cities turn into ‘gas chambers’, especially in the winter months. State capitals such as Lucknow, Kolkata and Patna also suffer from severe pollution, while industrial cities such as Kanpur, Agra and Muzaffarpur fare even worse. India now has the unwanted distinction of having 15 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, according to the data compiled in the IQAir AirVisual 2018 World Air Quality Report.

Switching to damage-control mode, the government and the pollution control board sprung into action by deploying teams to monitor the air quality and then charging fines (going into lakhs of rupees) on the basis of complaints against illegal construction and demolition activities in the new capital region (NCR). Schools were shut down, and a restriction over the use of private vehicles in the region was also considered. By all accounts, though, these measures may have come a bit too late.

In the run-up to Diwali this year, the big question is whether we’ll be seeing a repeat of events we have been witnessing over the past few years. Already, some preventive measures have been instituted to fight this menace: 

  • The Supreme Court has legalized the bursting of only green, silent versions of the anar (flowerpot) and phuljari (sparklers) crackers in Delhi-NCR. These, according to the Delhi government claims, bring down air pollution by as much as 30 per cent. The police has also promised strict legal action against anyone found selling crackers other than the two mentioned above.
  • The Delhi government has also announced a seven-point action plan to combat pollution during Diwali and a five-point action plan to combat winter pollution. Some of the measures proposed include the implementation of the odd-even scheme from 4-15 November, procuring N 95 masks and distributing it among people and organizing a community Diwali laser show to detract people from bursting crackers. There are also plans to increase the frequency and area of sprinkling water on roads to reduce dust pollution, identifying pollution hotspots in the city and taking appropriate action, as well as having two designated ‘environment marshals’ in each ward of the city to ensure that no leaf-burning activity takes place. The Delhi police, for its part, has not issued a single license to any ordinary or gunpowder firecracker seller, if reports are to be believed.
  • Elsewhere, in Tamil Nadu, the state pollution control board has fixed time slots during which people may choose to burst crackers. The two slots are between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. and between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. The board has promised strict action against those who burst crackers outside the specified time limits. Apart from this, the agency has also specified that welfare associations need to obtain prior permission from local bodies to gather and burst crackers in public spaces.
  • In Maharashtra, the state pollution control board will, for the first time, monitor air quality a week before and after Diwali, in 18 cities—from October 20 to 27 and from October 28 to November 3. The move is aimed at understanding the composition of dust and emissions from firecrackers. Furthermore, after testing 29 crackers (green crackers included) along with the NGO Awaaz Foundation, the board has decided to ban three crackers containing barium nitrate, generating thick smoke and violating peak noise levels.
  • In Kolkata, the state pollution control board and the police have promised harsh action against those found violating noise norms during Diwali. Representatives of housing complexes and societies have been informed that the penalty for an offence can go up to as high as ₹1 lakh. It may also lead to an imprisonment of five years.

While administrative efforts have mostly been geared towards promoting the use of green crackers and carrying out punitive action on offenders, only time will tell if these measures will bear the desired fruits.

diwali-pollution_102519054915.jpgIt's best to stay away from crackers this Diwali, both for our own sake and for the environment. (Image used for representative purposes only)

In the meantime, how can the common citizen contribute to the fight against pollution and protect themselves as well?

  • Stay away from the temptation of bursting firecrackers, especially the loud ones that cause both noise and sound pollution. If you still feel the itch, opt for the green ones instead.
  • Despite well-intentioned measures by the government, it’s highly likely that some cities may still suffer from high levels of pollution. One of the ways you can keep yourself safe from pollution is by staying indoors, especially on Diwali and the day after. However, do keep your households free of dust and other irritants that cause indoor pollution.
  • Consume more immunity-boosting foods (lemons, yogurt and spinach, among others) to stay away from and fight illnesses that are likely to afflict you during this time.
  • Pollution levels will invariably peak post-Diwali and during the onset of winter, which makes breathing difficult for hundreds and thousands of people living in cities across India. It’s therefore necessary to procure a face mask well before pollution levels peak, and use it while venturing outside. The masks (especially the N95 and N99 ones) do prevent pollutants from entering your body to a significant extent.


To read how devastating the air pollution epidemic was, last year, click here.

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