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Viewing the Capital, through a thick haze
News analysis

Viewing the Capital, through a thick haze

S.Sivadas

S.Sivadas

Riding on the steam of the anti-corruption campaign when the young and talented team of Arvind Kejriwal stormed into the Capital four years ago, it was a like a breath of fresh air. It was a group of young and idealistic and highly motivated youngsters from diverse fields and professions, led by a person whose track record was even more enviable. After years of staid and moribund Congress and BJP rule alternating the electorate was yearning for something that was a break from the worn out clichés and platitudes.

But soon enough the crack Kejriwal team  ran into an unforeseen atmospheric turbulence, pollution, and he came to symbolise that with his trademark muffler and coughing into the cameras. The team that was to transform Delhi with many innovative schemes was bogged down in the haze that spread its cover over the national capital region. The next year it was less but as if to make up for it, this year the problem assumed such proportions that it has caught international headlines and even the Supreme Court took note and issued a severe reprimand. The government re-introduced the odd-even scheme for vehicles plying on the roads, introduced last year, and came down heavily on violators.

The Supreme Court, in the same breath, also asked the Delhi government about the ‘logic’ behind the odd-even scheme and ordered it to produce data to prove that the road rationing plan reduces pollution. The bench of Justice Arun Mishra and Deepak Gupta also took up the issue of air pollution in other parts of North India. 'Can you permit people to die like this due to pollution? Can you permit the country to go back by 100 years?’  it asked.  The court directed Punjab, Haryana and UP to give support of Rs 100 quintal and necessary machines to small and marginal farmers who have burnt stubble.  ‘Agriculture is the backbone of the country’s economy and its bounden duty of the state to look after the interests of farmers. Why can’t the government machinery stop stubble burning? Why can’t the government purchase stubble from the farmers? Punishing farmers is not the solution. You don’t even have a policy; you want to rule from an ivory tower. Don’t you feel ashamed that flights are being diverted and citizens are no safe even in their homes? It is a shocking state of affairs that there are unpaved routes and pits in the national capital.’ Justice Mishra rejected the attorney general KK Venugopal’s  suggestion to divide stubble burning zones  into seven regions and allow farmers in each zone to burn crop residue taking turns. He later clarified that he was only making a ‘practical submission’.

The court ruled that those found violating the ban on construction and demolition in Delhi-NCR region, that was the villain, be fined Rs 1 lakh and Rs 5,000 for burning garbage. It also directed municipal bodies to prevent open dumping of garbage. All this happened on the peak day of the fog that reduced visibility to the minimum and the media was full of reports, backing up with visuals, of choking roads and people wearing masks groping in the haze.

The day after the odd-even scheme was launched, as if on cue, the sun came out and there was a visible improvement in the Capital’s air quality. That afternoon winds gusting up to 20 km per hour dispersed some of the noxious haze that lingered over the city for a week, though the pollution level still remained in the 'severe' category.

And to add more cheer, the India Meteorological Department said Cyclone Maha and a western disturbance will cause rainfall in parts of the northern plains, covering Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and Delhi-NCR, all villains in the stubble operations, and that will improve the situation further. The Central Pollution Control Board, however, was pessimistic and said though there is a significant, visible change in pollution levels, the Capital's air quality index (AQI) read 416, which is still in the 'severe' category. An AQI between 0-50 is considered 'good', 51-100 'satisfactory', 101-200 'moderate', 201-300 'poor', 301-400 'very poor' and 401-500 'severe'; Above 500 falls in the 'severe plus' category.

A former director, Dipankar Saha, explained that the AQI  reading at any given time is an average of AQIs recorded in the previous 24 hours.

The cloud cover over Delhi and the neighbouring areas also dissipated, revealing the sun that caused the air close to the ground to rise up and flush out pollutants.

Another IMD scientist said, ‘the two main reasons for improvement in air quality are increased wind speed and no cloud cover.’

The previous day the pollution levels had peaked to a three-year high of 494, the highest since November 6, 2016 when it was 497, time Kejriwal had taken over and coughed into the television screens.

A private forecaster, Skymet Weather, said rainfall is likely in Delhi and neighbouring areas for two days under the influence of ‘a western disturbance that will also increase the wind speed... Strong easterly winds due to Cyclone Bulbul will reduce the impact of smoke from stubble burning in (Haryana and Punjab.’

There is an irony being played out here. While the Capital was reeling under one of its worst spells of air pollution, the government brought out a series of advertisements claiming that the levels have come down by 25%.

They mentioned that the levels of PM 2.5—particulate matter of size less than 2.5 microns—have reduced from 154 microgrammes per cubic meter (µg/m3) during 2012-2014 to 115µg/m3 during 2016-2018. To comprehend this data, one has to understand the status of monitoring. With the largest number of air quality monitors in the country, 47 monitoring stations, to be precise, Delhi is gifted with 10 manual monitors, and 37 continuous monitors. There are four agencies, the Central Pollution Control Board (13 monitors), Delhi Pollution Control Committee (24), India Meteorological Department (7) and the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (3) and their continuous readings every 15 minutes are used to calculate the AQI. The CPCB has also developed data validation criteria for these monitors. Continuous monitors must be operational for 16 hours in a day for estimating daily pollution levels. Similarly, they must be operational for 80% of the time in a year for determining the annual levels.

In manual monitors, this is carried out for 24 hours, with a frequency of twice a week. There must be a minimum of 104 readings in a year for estimating annual pollution levels. In India, data from manual monitors are still used to make country-wide comparisons on the status of air pollution. The reason is simple: we have 573 manual stations in 240 cities/towns compared to just 202 continuous monitors in 112 cities/towns. Manual monitors, therefore, are sentinel monitors as they have comparable data for the longest time-frame.

As one can see, continuous monitoring is a recent phenomenon in Delhi. Twenty continuous monitors were installed in 2018, and seven were introduced in 2017. Most researchers have concluded that using data from the continuous monitors to estimate annual pollution levels for the years 2012 to 2016 is statistically wrong. Therefore, one has to rely on manual monitors.

The data from manual monitors, published by CPCB, shows that the amount of PM 2.5 has almost doubled between 2012 and 2018—from 63 µg/m3 in 2012 to 121 µg/m3 in 2018. The average PM 2.5 level during 2012-2014 was 72 µg/m3, and during 2016-18, it was 115 µg/m3—an increase of 59%. So, air pollution levels in Delhi have increased significantly, and not reduced. From where, then, has the Delhi government put together data to show a reduction of 25%?

Interestingly, there is another set of data put out by DPCC, which is less publicised. This DPCC data shows that the average level of PM 2.5 was 154µg/m3 during 2012-14, which reduced to 131µg/m3 during 2016-2018—a reduction of 15%. This, however, comes with a disclaimer. It clearly states that for the period 2012-2017, the data is based on four continuous monitors, and the 2018 information is based on 26 monitors. As explained, the data from the four continuous monitors are incomplete and hence cannot be the basis for estimating pollution levels during the 2012-2017 period.

There are other ramifications and a Finnish organisation has chipped in with its bit. A chemical pollutants dispersal model SILAM (System for Integrated ModeLing of Atmospheric CoMpostion), developed by the Finnish Meteorological Institute, has indicated that the plume of dust and smoke over Delhi would travel towards East India, move to the Bay of Bengal and hike pollution levels as far away as Tamil Nadu, though an IMA expert has said that was unlikely.

There are conspiracy theories galore, as last year’s haze was attributed to the stubble burning in Pakistan. The origin of the haze had also been tracked as emanating from as far as Oman. The green revolution has also been seen as the villain, with the change in crop patterns and the switch from wheat to rice that is a water guzzler. Modernity has played its part with the arrival of the combined harvesters and their nicking just the grain and leaving a longer stubble. There is also the problem of plenty with some districts in Haryana having no space to park the harvesters.

Regarding disposal of the stubble also other ways of recycling have not been explored. Hay mixed with mortar and lime used to be the traditional material for building forts and mausoleums during the middle ages and even in Ayodhya there seems to have been evidence that this was used before the arrival of the Afghans and the Mughals.

During the four years of drought in Andhra Pradesh in the eighties, when the Musi river which runs through Hyderabad ran dry, leaders of different faiths like Swami Ranganathananda, Sultan Saluddin Owassi and the Archbishop of Medak held a joint prayer meeting in the dry river bed to propitiate the rain Gods. There is no harm in trying what one UP leader has suggested, having a havan to drive away the toxic haze. After all these extensive monitoring and exploring other ways and production of heavy data, and conspiracy theories, this might work.