NEW DELHI - It is the time of the year when Indians hit the roads to distribute gifts and sweets to friends and family, visit colorful “Diwali bazars” and party as they gear up to celebrate the main Hindu festival of Diwali on November 7. But in the Indian capital, there is a party spoiler: a deadly haze of pollution that has prompted calls to minimize exposure to the dirty air and is making some pack up and leave the city during the festival.
Grey smog shrouds New Delhi and satellite towns as winter approaches and authorities have advised citizens to avoid strenuous outdoor activity, take only short walks, shut windows, reduce use of private vehicles and wear masks as a precaution.
A range of emergency measures has also been announced to reduce air pollution, such as a temporary ban on construction activity and coal and biomass based industries starting Thursday.
The measures kick in as the level of PM2, the tiny particulate matter that can dangerously clog lungs exceeded by more than six times the safe limit set by the World Health Organization. Earlier this year, WHO named Delhi as the world’s most polluted megacity — the city and its surrounding towns are home to 19 million people.
“There are pollution hotspots in the city where we have seen levels that are hitting serious levels,” says Anumita Roy Chowdhury, Executive Director, Research and Advocacy at the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi. “But at least the action has started and we are hoping the emergency response will help.”
The pollution in the city and surrounding towns is a toxic mix of of dust, fumes from vehicles, burning of waste and polluting industries, and has been exacerbated with explosive growth. It worsens at this time of the year as farmers set fire to thousands of hectares of farmland in neighboring states, Diwali revelers set off firecrackers and still winter air keeps pollutants hovering over the city.
Authorities have launched a campaign to prevent farmers from burning crop residue, which helps them prepare the fields for the next harvest without incurring heavy labor costs. The acrid smoke from the fields billows towards Delhi, becoming one of the major triggers for the city’s deadly smog.
State authorities are optimistic the number of fires has been reduced as the government offers subsidies on equipment that enables farmers to plant the new crop with the stubble still in the fields and imposes fines on those who still light up the residue on their fields. But thousands of resentful farmers continue to burn the stubble, saying it is easier to pick up a matchstick and pay the penalty rather than invest in the equipment.
Others grumble the additional expense is cutting into already slim farm profits and leaving their crop more vulnerable to pests like rats.
“We don’t like scorching mother earth, but only when you work at the ground level you know the challenges you face,” said Vinod Kumar, who has a 16-hectare farm in Karnal in neighboring Haryana state. He does not find it viable to plant the new crop with the stubble still standing in the fields. “The taller stubble has to be set on fire.”
Even as crop fires rage, an ease on a ban on firecrackers by the Supreme Court has intensified New Delhi’s pollution worries. The top court rejected calls for an outright ban and said “green crackers” would be allowed for a two-hour window on Diwali.
But many in the country, including shops selling firecrackers, appeared clueless about what is an environmentally safe firework. They are doing brisk business — many in the city are loath to give up the age-old custom, which they see as an intrinsic part of Diwali celebrations despite several campaigns urging people to stay away from firecrackers.
Doctors are already advising people suffering from respiratory problems to leave the city and those who can afford to heed the warning are taking it seriously.
New Delhi resident, Pradeep Bhargava, who has suffered bouts of asthma, is taking no chances after last year when pollution spiked to its worst-ever level around Diwali and prompted doctors to declare a “medical emergency” and authorities to shut schools. “The pollution is the major factor that we are heading to the hills, but five days out of the city won't really help,” he said. “We have to breathe the dirty air through the winter.”
Many environmentalists agree and point out that emergency measures taken during the smog season will not fix Delhi’s pollution crisis. “Focus now will really have to shift more towards round-the year plan so that those systemic reforms take place so that by next winter we begin to see more substantial changes,” said Chowdhury from the Center of Science and Environment.