Dec 2, Delhi: 4-year old Ajay draws on the fogged window a sad smiley. He has been sick for 2 months with respiratory problems and recovering after tracheostomy. Doctors blamed the smog outside and prescribed less outdoor activity while Ajay wishes to go back to school and see his friends. His father, trying to cheer the child, goes through nostalgic moments of his childhood playing in the chilled evenings. His mother comes back home after working for two shifts to clear the debt taken for her son’s medical services. She saw her sleeping Ajay and her saddened husband looking for stable jobs online. He lost his job after a ban on brick-kiln activity. She wonders about how things have changed in the family and gets lost in her thoughts, hoping things would get better.
Air pollution kills a child every 3 minutes in India, according to the Global Burden of Diseases report. Economic cost and disease burden of smog is worst in India, followed by China. In India our National Capital Region and Delhi are the worst hit with pollution and particulate matter. About 14,800 premature deaths happen in Delhi alone due to air pollution.
Particulate Matter In National Capital
Smoke along with fog forms smog. The air above the ground gets cooled and the temperature of the air mass containing water droplets falls, condensation takes place on dust particles forming fog. In cities like Delhi, where emissions and dust particles are high, fog formation is high due to the availability of nuclei to settle. Even though Kolkata and Mumbai have similar demography and faces similar emission levels, being located in coastal regions they experience sea and land breeze exchanges which helps reduce air particulate matter.
In winters, the land gets cooled faster than air due to radiation. Air just above the ground gets cooler compared to the above atmosphere which is inverse to the normal condition where the top atmosphere is cooler than the lower atmosphere. As cold air is denser than hot air, vertical movement of air doesn’t occur creating a closed room.
Sources Of Emissions
Industries: Delhi, home to coal and oil-based plants created pollution and was the centre of notice for the government. With the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change’s continuous efforts to phase out oil and coal-based industries, about 95% of industries turned to CNG as of September 2019. However, Okhla waste to energy plants incinerates around 8,000 tonnes of unsegregated waste every day leading to toxic emissions. Experts say around 60% of waste in Delhi is biodegradable and rest can be recycled or dismantled.
Stubble Burning: Farmers in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab burn stubble to prepare the field for the next crop as there is little time left between crops. Burning of straw leads to emissions, reaching the already choked capital region. In the case of the spoiled crop, it is costly for the farmer to weed out the crop and hence they choose to burn it. Over the past few years, stubble burning has decreased and 4500 villages in Haryana and Punjab have been declared zero stubble burning as the central government is working for in-site management of crop residue.
Diwali and Crackers: After every Diwali, Delhi witnesses more than 60 times emissions than the safe limit. As Cracker making industry is labour-intensive, the government is finding it challenging to put a ban on barium, the chemical Supreme Court order banned. NEERI came up with “Green Crackers” containing 30% less barium compromising with PESO approval. The government needs to form consistent policies for diversifying and skilling the manpower in another sector.
Smog’s Economic Footprint
Health: In developing countries like India, around 7% of healthcare spending is directly attributed to pollution. In India, out of pocket expenses in medical care are pushing around 5 crore middle-class people into poverty every year. High PPM leads to respiratory problems and eye diseases, which leads to decreased working hours and activity thus decreasing income and increasing health care expenditure.
Education: Days with high levels of pollution lead to declaring holidays in National capital’s schools. Schools have seen high absenteeism and are concerned with reduced learning. Even the morning assemblies have become indoors. Schools have been taking measures to reduce indoor pollution.
Impact on Business: Top executives are taking long leaves during peak pollution. Considering stable settlement, many talented people leave the country, leading to knowledge drain in the economy. With employee health at risk, overall it impacts workforce productivity.
Tourism: Tourism industry faces the brunt of smog increasingly every year. Notorious reports of Delhi smog is getting global attention, tourists are cancelling their trips to Delhi, Agra and Varanasi. Even if some tourists arrive, they return home quickly, shocked with the smog.
Restriction on economic activities: When smog reaches emergency level in winters, government impose graded response action plan in which it bans construction activities, entry of trucks, brick-kilns, hot mix plants and stone crushers etc. Parking fees are enhanced. All the above restrictions affect the normal effective function of economy and people working in the unorganized sector.
Overall impact on GDP: World bank 2013 study reveals that about 5.7% of India’s GDP is lost because of pollution leading to increased medical expenses and lost labour hours. Another study from IIT Bombay reports about economic cost of pollution in Mumbai and Delhi alone is 70,000 crores in 2015.
Need Of The Hour
State and Central governments have different plans for Delhi and NCR region creating confusion and implementation of sustainable solution is minimal. Governments should rejuvenate and utilize the statutory bodies like North and Central zonal councils to discuss the solutions to stop stubble burning.
Private players need to proactively improve their plants and processes to reduce carbon footprint. Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) needs to be made compulsory for firms and for any Greenfield project to minimize emissions.
There is a need to create the artificial carbon sinks pockets and save the natural carbon sinks-forests and green corridors. Consistent and long-term strategic policies in cracker industry, bottom-up segregated waste management systems, incentives for green buildings- Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification in construction field etc. may help improve Ambient Air quality.
Mitigation strategies from smog needs to be placed to tackle the worst effects. Avoiding outdoor activities in early mornings and late nights, using anti-pollution masks, increasing immunity with antioxidant rich vegetables and fruits like gooseberries seems to be the short term measures that citizens of polluted cities can look forward to.
To fight the tough war ahead, all the stakeholders need to stop the blame game and take a cohesive strategic action in lieu of panicking at the eleventh hour. While complexity to deal with smog is a herculean task, all the stakeholders need to unite to sail the boat in the same direction against the clock.
- Live mint
- Down to earth
- IPCC reports
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