If anyone is wondering why Delhi and the neighbouring NCR territories didn't immediately see the sort of ‘air’pocalypse that we saw post-Diwali last year, it is important to understand that air pollution is a complex science and air quality is affected not just by physical, chemical, and geographical issues, but also meteorological factors.
But, the airpocalypse its coming. Any day now.
Don't get me wrong. The current air quality (AQ) levels are hovering between "very poor/unhealthy" and "severe/hazardous" – so, pollution is still very high. But Delhi residents have been fortunate this year that local winds have blown away much of the particulate matter caused by burning of crop stubble, firecrackers, and other regular combustion, keeping PM levels lower than what it was last year, when the air was still.
Also Read: How Clean Is the Air Around You?
Second, thanks to the Supreme Court’s ban on the sale of firecrackers, these entertaining but toxic materials were less easily accessible to those irresponsible enough to still want to burn them.
What is the Different This Year?
Many aware and responsible residents did not just desist the use of firecrackers, but also tried to persuade others to cut back and use alternatives. And because Diwali came earlier than last year, the cooler temperatures that keep PM at lower heights – ambient air that we directly inhale – are yet to come. And lastly, harvesting still isn't complete, thus the crop stubble burning season hasn't yet swung in full strength.
As temperatures cool in the coming days and more crop stubble is burnt, we can expect to see worsening air quality. Satellite data has already begun to show fields in neighbouring Punjab and Haryana on fire, and according to air pollution scientists and analysts using predictive models, levels of toxic particulate matter (PM) are expected to rise sharply in the coming weeks due to unlawful burning of crop stubble in neighbouring states, adding to the spike caused by firecrackers during Diwali.
These will add to other existing factors such as vehicular emissions, trash and biomass burning, and industrial pollution.
When inhaled, these microscopic particles enter our lungs and bloodstream and the damage done to our organs is irreversible.
Our children are even more vulnerable.
And what actions are our decision-making stakeholders – the state and central governments, corporates, schools – doing to prepare for what everyone knows is an annual winter event? Not much, actually, apart from sending advisories to each other. And some of them aren't even doing that. The worst culprits are the Environmental Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) and the Central Pollution Control Board, which have been set up to control pollution. Instead of controlling it, in fact, the latter is downplaying its severity.
Clean Air Still Not a Political Issue
The absolute silence of all political parties on this issue makes it clear that there just isn't enough awareness today that this is a political issue. The day people actually start voting for the party that promises them clean air, politicians will start working to do that. But for that, we need greater awareness of this very real and very serious health emergency.
Now that the medical fraternity has come out in full strength to state clearly how widespread and harmful air pollution is for human health, there should be no doubt left in anyone’s mind about what we are dealing with. More than war and conflict, it is polluted air that is taking lives today.
Doctors and specialists, such as Dr Arvind Kumar, head of thoracic surgery, Sir Gangaram Hospital, have advised us to protect our children during this severely polluted season by staying indoors, wearing masks, and using air filters whenever PM levels are high.
‘Everyone in Delhi Has the Lungs of a Smoker’
Dr Kumar, who has been at the forefront for the medical fraternity and has been working tirelessly to spread awareness about this issue – from hospitals to religious organisations, said he sees black deposits of PM even in the lungs of infants. This wasn't the case even up till 10 years ago. All of us who live in Delhi have smokers’ lungs, he says, even if we have never held a cigarette in our lives.
So what’s stopping us from taking action? Part of the reason is because the harmful effects of PM are so insidious that various lobbies, whether they are automakers, oil companies or firecracker manufacturers, are easily able to deny what evidence backed research shows clearly – when particles that small enter our bloodstream, it affects every organ, not just our lungs. But instead of killing us instantly, or even over five or 10 years, it takes its time, eating away not just our lifespan but also our quality of life.
The second reason is that there isn't one centralised, empowered, and accountable authority with an strong and effective head (like an E Sreedharan for the Delhi Metro or a Nandan Nilekani for the Aadhar-UIDAI) that can cut across all levels of the central and state government to actually enforce control. So, pollution increases unabated and unchecked.
Every stakeholder is complicit, and now that the brouhaha over the Supreme Court ban on cracker sales – and the drama around that – has died down, it is time to take stock of the situation to see what we can do to protect ourselves.
Link All Outdoor Activities With Air Quality
One of the first thing to do is to link all outdoor aerobic activity to outdoor air quality. We can do this as individuals as well as organised entities like schools – which contain our most vulnerable and precious population, and furthermore, one which doesn't have its own agency.
As parents, we need to ask our schools to link any outdoor sporting activity to outdoor air quality and immediately suspend all outdoor activity when air quality crosses hazardous levels. Some very aware Delhi-based schools already do that.
Others need to follow that lead. Parents should ask the Department of Education to issue a circular to all local schools to link all their outdoor aerobic activity to prevailing air quality levels between now and March 2018. However, instead of issuing it just as a public health advisory to schools, the DoE needs to make this mandatory.
Let me explain why.
If it isn't mandatory, and only a few schools do this, they miss inter-school tournaments and are thus disinclined to follow such advisories for fear of losing out, making this a Catch-22 situation.
Additionally, schools – and tournament organisers – should be aware that pollution levels are the worst early morning and late evenings when it is cooler. For those activities and trials that can't be postponed, they should be held after 11am and before 4pm when AQI improves marginally
However, all outdoor aerobic activity for AQI levels of more than 250-300 should be immediately suspended, without exception.
Children don't have the same choice that adults do – moreover, they don't have an agency. Thus, it is essential for parents, schools, educators, and governments to ensure their well-being is mandated, not just advised.
Corporates Should Stop Sponsoring Outdoor Sporting Events
When it comes to adults – because our organs are also harmed by toxic air – it is very important to build awareness. But instead of building awareness, which is everyone's social responsibility, corporates seem to not just be sidestepping that, but actually being negligent and downright irresponsible by sponsoring marathons, tournaments and other outdoor sport activities during the Delhi's annual toxic winter air.
It is bad enough that our governments, enforcement agencies, and legislators have failed us in passing laws and enforcing existing laws meant to control air pollution. But where is the corporate social responsibility of companies which are sponsoring marathon runs and other outdoor sporting events at a time when pollution peaks in Delhi and NCR?
Where is the logic in exhorting people to come out in large numbers to run at a time when they should be staying indoors and protecting their lungs, as so clearly advised by our doctors?
Runners and sportspeople will be inhaling the largest amount of PM during the next couple of months, the more, the heavier they breathe.
Many citizen activist groups have been writing to and reaching out informally to corporates asking to cancel – or at least postpone – such events to a time when the air quality is better. But the lure of the lucre seems to trump all research (as well our doctors) that proves beyond doubt how harmful these microscopic particles are for human health.
It is time this changed. Clean air is the responsibility of us all – everyone of us is complicit. But to take advantage of people's lack of awareness and ask them to increase physical activity during such poor air is criminal. The least these companies need to do is amplify awareness, so that runners make an informed decision. And if corporates are going to be guilty of dereliction of their social responsibility, then the government needs to step in and withdraw permissions for outdoor public activity whenever AQIs exceed hazardous levels.
(Jyoti Pande Lavakare is a Delhi-based columnist and co-founder of Care for Air (careforair.org), an awareness and advocacy platform whose mission is the pursuit of clean air. The views expressed are personal.)