Diwali pollution: Too little too late?
The Supreme Court ban on firecrackers this Diwali (October 19) began with a bang (no pun intended) but ended in a whimper.
We talk about "judicial activism" but this is a classic case of the top court being constrained to take action, on a petition filed by three infants after the alarming rise in pollution levels and smog which enveloped the national capital last year on Diwali.
On October 13, the court refused to modify its earlier order banning the sale of firecrackers in Delhi-NCR.
The administration allowed those people who have already purchased firecrackers to burst them on Diwali.
"It's just an experiment for one year, we will take stock after that," Justice A K Sikri, who heard the case today, was quoted as saying by WION.
The judge said its 2016 order suspending the licences "should be given one chance to test itself".
Far from activism, the Supreme Court ban stopped short of altogether banning the bursting of firecrackers. The administration in Delhi and the National Capital Region issued directives to the shopkeepers to stop selling firecrackers. But the administration allowed those people who have already purchased firecrackers to burst them on Diwali.
The results were there for everyone to see. While pollution levels, which were "very poor" just 10 days prior remained at "very poor" on the night of October 19, they shot up to "severe" the next day, the Central Pollution Control Board reported.
The online indicators of the pollution monitoring stations in the city on Diwali glowed red, indicating a "very poor" air quality as the volume of PM2.5 and PM10 sharply rose from around 7 pm. The state-run System of Air Quality Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) estimated the 24-hour rolling average of PM2.5 and PM10, ultrafine particulates which are up to 30 times tinier than the width of a human hair, at 154 and 256 micrograms per cubic metre at around 11 pm.
The 24-hour rolling average of PM2.5 and PM10 were 424 and 571 micrograms per cubic metre (ug/m3) the next day, much higher than the safe limits of 60 and 100. PM 2.5 can travel through the respiratory tract and reach the lungs causing short-term respiratory ailments such as eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, coughing and sneezing. They can also worsen respiratory ailments such as asthma and heart disease.
Real-time pollution data was alarming. The Delhi Pollution Control Committee's (DPCC) RK Puram monitoring station recorded PM2.5 and PM10 at 878 and 1,179 micrograms per cubic metre at around 11 pm. The pollutants peaked after midnight, surpassing the corresponding 24-hour safe limits of 60 and 100 more than 10 times. The monitors stopped working after midnight, suggesting that the pollutants had gone through the roof.
The Air Quality Index (AQI), a barometer for measuring air pollution, was above 400 in most places in the National Capital Region (NCR) the next day. It was at a "hazardous" 978 in New Delhi's RK Puram area. US embassy's pollution monitor also recorded "hazardous" with the index scoring an alarming 878, which the mission considers "beyond its air quality index", which ends at 500. On Diwali, the AQI improved from "severe" (431) in 2016 to (319) "very poor", the Central Pollution Control Board reported.
A "very poor" air quality implies that people may suffer from respiratory illnesses on prolonged exposure to such air. If the air quality dips further, the AQI will turn "severe". An AQI level of 0-50 is considered "good", 51-100 "satisfactory", 101-200 "moderate", 201-300 "poor", 301-400 "very poor", and 401 and above is "severe".
The way forward
Stricter laws and stringent enforcing mechanisms seem to be the only way forward. We have the police for keeping crime in check, the traffic police for fining those who violate traffic rules. Perhaps, a similar law-enforcing mechanism on Diwali could be implemented.
China recently set up an "anti-smog police force". Perhaps, something similar may help us breathe a little easier.