India chokes due to foul air post Diwali, Delhi registers worst spike in its pollution index

Express News Service

NEW DELHI:  Delhi woke up to a thick layer of haze and smoke-filled skies on Friday, registering the worst post-Diwali pollution spike in five years.

A combination of factors — firecracker emissions despite a blanket ban; first winter fog and calm winds; and peak stubble burning  — pushed the air quality into the severe zone, an analysis by government agencies said.

Poor enforcement of cracker ban in Delhi and the absence of any bar in the satellite towns allowed large-scale burning of firecrackers overnight, resulting in a midnight spike in pollution levels.

As per the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), Delhi’s overall air quality index (AQI) on Friday was 462, a sharp rise from 382 the previous day.

The PM 2.5 levels — the most prominent pollutant that can enter the blood stream and pose a serious health risk — shot up five times the permissible limit at midnight.

Besides, the wind direction changed on Thursday night, bringing in smoke from peak stubble burning in neighbouring Punjab and Haryana. 

Delhi environment minister Gopal Rai on Friday said NASA images show stubble burning instances shot up from 1,000 last week to over 3,500 on Thursday.

“A large population of Delhi did not burst crackers, but the BJP-ruled Union government did not enforce or place a blanket ban in satellite towns resulting in people bursting firecrackers,” Rai said. 

The Delhi government had launched an anti-firecracker campaign last month — Patakhe Nahi, Diye Jalao to discourage people from burning crackers.

This year, it had placed a blanket ban on sale and purchase of firecrackers early on while no licenses were issued to traders.

Police officials said that it is mainly the NCR towns from where people have been buying crackers, as sale was not restricted there. 

A senior police official who did not wish to be named, said, “Crackers were not available anywhere in Delhi. People bought them from Noida and Ghaziabad. The only solution is to put a complete ban on selling and bursting crackers in NCR regions too.” 

According to an analysis by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, this was the sharpest rise in pollution levels in the city on the morning after Diwali since 2016 when the AQI was 445 (see graphics). 

Rai also blamed the BJP, alleging that the saffron party instigated people to defy the ban on firecrackers, as the city’s air quality index (AQI) entered the ‘severe’ category on Diwali night and continued its upward trend to reach 462 at noon on Friday.

Hitting back, Delhi BJP spokesperson Naveen Kumar Jindal said that Diwali is a festival of Hindus and not of a political party and asked if the Hindus who are with Rai’s Aam Aadmi Party are not allowed to celebrate their festival.

The 24-hour average air quality index (AQI) the day after Diwali was 435 last year, 368 in 2019; 390 in 2018; 403 in 2017 and 445 in 2016.

As a thick layer of acrid smog enveloped the Delhi-NCR region throughout the day, blotting out the sun, the 24-hour AQI was the highest in the country in Noida at 475, while others – Faridabad (469), Greater Noida (464), Ghaziabad (470), Gurgaon (472) – also recorded ‘severe’ air pollution levels.

An AQI between zero and 50 is considered ‘good’, 51 and 100 ‘satisfactory’, 101 and 200 ‘moderate’, 201 and 300 ‘poor’, 301 and 400 ‘very poor’, and 401 and 500 ‘severe’.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), several other cities and districts in the country recorded severe AQI — Agra, Baghpat, Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh; Ballbhgarh, Bhiwani, Hisar, Jind, Panipat, Rohtak in Haryana and Bhiwadi in Rajasthan.

Among the districts and cities where the AQI was ‘very poor’ were — Ambala in Haryana; Jaipur, Jodhpur, Kota in Rajasthan, Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, Gorakhpur in UP, Jalandhar in Punjab and Chennai in Tamil Nadu.

The AQI was in the poor category in Kolkata and Howrah in West Bengal; Patiala in Punjab and Patna in Bihar along with other districts in various states.

The 24-hour average concentration of lung-damaging fine particles known as PM2.5 in Delhi-NCR shot up from 243 micrograms per cubic metre at 6 PM on Thursday (Diwali day) to 410 micrograms per cubic metre at 9 AM on Friday, around seven times the safe limit of 60 micrograms per cubic metre.

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Experts said the air quality turned severe in Delhi-NCR owing to unfavourable meteorological conditions — calm winds, low temperature and low mixing height — and a poisonous cocktail of emissions from firecrackers, stubble burning and local sources.

The Ministry of Earth Sciences’ air quality forecast agency SAFAR, stated that stubble burning accounted for 36 percent of Delhi’s PM2.5 on Friday, the highest so far this season.

“A large number of people did not burst firecrackers. I thank them all. But some people burst firecrackers on purpose. I categorically say the BJP instigated them to do it,” Rai told reporters.

The minister said the number of farm fires has risen to 3,500 and its impact is visible in Delhi.

Ahead of the festive season, the Delhi government had announced a complete ban on firecrackers till January 1, 2022, and ran an aggressive campaign against their sale and use.

The Delhi Police arrested 281 people — 138 for selling and supplying firecrackers and 143 for bursting them — between September 29 and Diwali on Thursday, according to data provided by the force.

Concerned citizens and environment activists shared pictures and videos of fireworks on social media and called the ban on crackers a “joke”.

“I will shock you by saying that the only thing good about this morning is this event because the weather outside is not good at all,” Supreme Court judge Justice S Ravindra Bhat quipped at a book launch while referring to the spike in air pollution level in the national capital.

The air quality status in Chennai was very poor with a substantial increase in pollutants in the metropolis when compared to the previous year, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board said.

The AQI observed from 6 AM on November 4 to 6.00 AM the following day, the “average value of AQI in Chennai city ranges between 342 to 385 and the Air quality status is very poor,” an official release said.

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About 2,000 cases have been registered by police across Tamil Nadu against those who violated the Supreme Court directives in respect of firecrackers, police sources said on Friday.

The Haryana government had imposed a ban on the sale or use of all kinds of firecrackers in 14 of its districts in the National Capital Region.

Green crackers were allowed on Diwali in Uttar Pradesh only for two hours in areas with moderate or better air quality.

In West Bengal, except for some pockets in south Kolkata very few cases of firecracker bursting were reported from the state capital on Kali Puja night even though the air quality in the metropolis dipped from moderate to poor, a West Bengal Pollution Control Board (WBPCB) official said.

“The dip in air quality cannot be entirely attributed to the fireworks issue and more due to the moisture and the emissions from vehicular traffic as a higher number of vehicles hit the road on the Kali puja night,” the WBPCB official said.

The Calcutta High Court had directed that all necessary efforts must be made by the West Bengal government to ensure that only green crackers are used during Diwali-Kali Puja and other ensuing festivals, observing that the sincerity of the state would be reflected in the enforcement mechanism.

According to the CPCB, the AQI was moderate in aharastra capital Mumbai, though it was poor in Navi Mumbai and Nashik.

In Hyderabad, two persons were killed and another injured in an explosion of firecrackers during Diwali celebrations.

Incidents of fire and burn injuries were also reported in many parts of the country during Diwali night.

The Delhi Fire Service received 152 fire-related calls on Diwali, the lowest in the last 15 years, officials said.

The DFS control room usually responds to maximum calls on Diwali, and fire-fighters need to be on their toes to deal with emergencies, they said.

Fire tenders and motorcycles fitted with fire-fighting equipment were deployed in many places.

(With PTI Inputs)