Delhi Air Pollution: Causes and Effects of Severe Air Quality Index (AQI)

Delhi Pollution

1. Introduction and general summary

We all know what air pollution is. Since elementary grade, books on social sciences and environmental science has taught us that when the amount of harmful and potentially toxic material increases in the air, taking away its purity, it is called air pollution.

These harmful materials can be in the form of gases, solids, and even liquids. They can enter the air through various ways, mostly activities which are performed by humans. Pollution becomes dangerous when it starts becoming detrimental to human life.

Delhi is a Union Territory of India and its capital, which has led to it being called the National Capital Territory of India. Since the last few years, Delhi has not only been topping the list of the most polluted cities in the country, but it is also a regular among the top ten most polluted cities in the world, often appearing among the podium finishers.

According to the Census Bureau of India, Delhi provides residence to 170 lakh people and more. In the last few years, there have been several instances where the sheer degree of air pollution has forced the government to take measures and shut down various colleges and schools because of the immense health hazards the polluted air would cause. People have often been asked to not sleep or spend an entire night in the open areas or outside their homes on various days.

It’s hard to believe but this city has even seen a large number of deaths because of the immensely polluted air. The changing conditions of weather don’t help the city as they more often than not lock all of those pollutants, keeping them suspended in the air and not allowing them to leave. People have resorted to masks ranging from normal protectors to air purifiers so that they can consume what should be the most basic element of all, oxygen.

Every winter, the air pollution in Delhi rises to unprecedented levels and hits the headlines around the world. In a lot of areas of Delhi, the Air Quality Index (AQI) levels hit a new high, and go to lengths where they are no longer measurable by the devices. Yes, you heard that right. The AQI index becomes higher than what normal devices can measure.

This happens because of the popular Indian festival Diwali, which involves burning of crackers. Another major reason for this is the pollutants which enter the city from up north, from states like Haryana and Punjab. In those states, the burning of the leftover crops take place, resulting in a lot of harmful pollutants rising up into the atmosphere and then due to various air currents, getting concentrated over Delhi.

The government of Delhi, over the years, have taken several steps in order to solve the air pollution problem. However, most of them involve prohibiting one activity or the other (or curbing it in some way) depending on the situations and circumstances at that point of time. This provides only temporary fixes, not even solutions, which lower the pollution levels from absolutely maniacal somewhere conceivable, but still high enough to be dangerous to human health.

The government needs to come up with some sort of a permanent solution, a set of rules, and implement it very soon to prevent the pollution levels from rising. This will require monitoring on a constant basis and asking citizens to take various steps to lessen the pollution levels.

There are various causes of these high level of pollutions in the city, as showcased by innumerable studies done in the city. These causes lead to huge pollution on a large scale which can cause serious hazards to human health and the death of not only humans, but also the other forms of life present in the city.

2. The Causes of the Delhi Air Pollution

As we have already mentioned, there are a lot of causes for the dangerous levels of air pollution in Delhi. We have already touched upon a few of them slightly but here we will look into those reasons and more in detail.

a) Crop burning: Killing nature in two ways with one shot

One of the biggest reasons there is for the pollution is the burning of crops. This burning of crops does not even take place in Delhi. It takes place in the states lying north of the city, Haryana and Punjab, and also Uttar Pradesh. They light fire to the rice subtle after the harvesting has been done every year. Not only does this lead to a lot of wasted plant material, the smoke from all of this mass burning affects the atmosphere in a major way.

All of the smoke is taken to Delhi through the various air currents. The air currents are lined in such a way that a majority of this smoke gets concentrated over the city, getting locked over air which is already badly polluted. Delhi Chief Minister has even made public appeals to the Chief Ministers of these states, asking them to take some measures for them, but they weren’t successful enough.

The farmers prefer the burning of the rice subtle so that the cost of removing them is reduced. This also saves a lot of time after the harvest season is over. Burning takes almost no time when compared to manual removal and makes the crop fields ready for harvesting in the next season very easily.

This burning is carried out in the winter months of October and November. And by the time winter properly sets in the country, all of those pollutants get trapped in the air which is now dense, wet, and cold. This leads to the formation of a thick smog around the city.

b) With high standards of living comes high standards of pollution

Delhi is one of the most populated cities in the country with a high amount of population. Along with the high number of people living in the city, the standard of living in the city is also quite high which means that there are more number of vehicles per person.

The emissions and exhausts from vehicles is a huge factor of the air pollution that Delhi faces. The city, because of its high degree of urbanization, also suffers from a lack of enough greenery.

In the past few years, the population of the city has risen considerably, leading to overcrowding of the public modes of transport. This again leads to people buying their own private vehicles. With relaxed laws regarding the regulation of the exhausts of these vehicles, the rise in the number of vehicles simply has no good side to it.

c) Overpopulation: Where does it stop?

As already mentioned above, the high number of people in a city like Delhi having private cars affects the pollution in a huge way. However, there is more. To accommodate such a huge population, new buildings and housing complexes have to be built all the time. This constant construction leads to a continuous barrage of particles consisting of cement and wood and marble and various other construction materials constantly being released into the atmosphere. These particles are even more dangerous because of their particulate nature and their ability to clog our lungs.

Along with releasing all this particles, the constant need for new construction leads to the chopping of major areas of trees, decreasing the amount of land covered in greenery.

This large number of people also generate a large amount of garbage. This garbage is often dumped or incinerated. Dumping releases a lot of harmful gases into the atmosphere as the waste decomposes and we don’t have to mention what burning does.

d) Industrialization: The Usual Suspect

Delhi is a heavily industrialized city. As they always do, industrial exhausts and wastes find their way into the list of causes of air pollution. More so in Delhi, because there are a number of factories in the city as well as out of it. according to quite a few studies, the power plants around the city, including the Badrapur power station, contribute more than 80 percent of this pollution.

e) Diwali: The festival of Lights and Smog

Winter is not a good season for the air pollution in Delhi. This is because along with the crop burning in its neighbouring states, the city also has to deal with the festival of lights, Diwali, which usually falls in the months of October or November. Along with the burning of the crops, the burning of a huge amount of fire crackers can also cause a lot of smoke. Also, this smoke is even more harmful since it is coming from the burning or ignition of explosives.

Diwali, coupled with crop burning causes a heavy smog to descend on to the city and create an environment which is suffocating even for people who have dealt with harsh climates. As said earlier, the coldness, dampness, and the higher density of air during winters makes the situation worse.

3. The effects of the Delhi Air Pollution

There are some obvious effects of the Delhi Air pollution, and some not so obvious ones. They are:

a) Health hazards galore

The number of direct health hazards to humans from the severe air pollution in Delhi is too high. The Indian Medical Association has time and again issued warnings to the general public about the horrible air quality in the city and asked them to not come out of their homes. The association has even declared a state of “Public Health Emergency” a few times in the city. The direct health risks are:

  • Various respiratory diseases: One of the most obvious effects of air pollution will be on our respiratory system. It causes problems like wheezing, dry cough, breathlessness, soreness in the throat, etc.
  • Damage to the lungs: Our lungs are our breathing organs. The severe pollution causes threats to the normal functioning of the lungs and reduces their capacity to filter the air. In severe cases, the air pollution even causes lung cancer.
  • Heart diseases: There are certain gaseous elements present in polluted air which can actually impact the capability of our blood to carry oxygen properly. This can cause malfunctioning of the heart, and even the other organs of the body.
  • Genetic defects: Constant and long term exposure to these levels of pollution can lead to birth defects among new-borns which persists throughout their lives.
  • Immediate effects: the short term effects of this kind of pollution is irritation in the eyes, mild to severe headaches, and even asthma is exposed to for a significant amount of time.

b) The lesser you see

One of the major effects of air pollution which we have mentioned in this article before is the formation of smog. Smog is a more poisonous and toxic form of fog, which decreases visibility and poses the same amount of risk as polluted air, if not more.

During the winter season ever year, Delhi hits headlines due to the formation of a smog so dense throughout the city that the visibility reduces to less than a few feet. This situation leads to many road accidents each year, and even leads to the diversion of schedules flights. This causes a lot of harm to the infrastructure of the city and the cars, both private and public.

c) Health over money

If you consider the smog we mentioned above, you will realize that many people would choose not to go to their offices in such conditions, as losing money is better than risking your life. The government themselves order the closing of many institutions. All of this leads to a decrease in the productivity of its people, leading to lesser economic growth. This in turn affects the people more, forming a never ending chain.

4. How can we save ourselves from this rampant problem?

On the personal front, we can do a lot of things so that we do not have to bear the brunt of the severe pollution. We can take the following measures:

  1. We can avoid running or jogging or exercising in the open in the early hours of the day. This will save us from the concentrated pollutants gathered overnight.
  2. We should use a mask whenever we are travelling. This will save our lungs from a lot of trouble.
  3. We should consume fruits which are very rich in vitamin C and also make it a goal to drink as much water as we can.
  4. We should try to keep the air in our homes as clean as possible. We should even air purifiers to solve this problem.
  5. We should try taking public transport as much as possible. This will reduce the nuber of vehicles on the roads, thereby reducing pollution.

5. The Pollution Levels in Delhi (Some statistics)

From the onset of this article, we have been commenting on the severe pollution levels of Delhi. But just how severe is it? Here are the answers:

a) Air Quality Index (AQI)

The air quality index is a widely accepted index that marks the air pollution in different levels. The level of air pollution is considered normal at a level of 100. However, in Delhi, the average AQI in the entire city usually hovers around the 250-300 mark, falling under the poor range, and sometimes even hazardous.

During the winter months, due to Diwali and crop burning, the AQI levels shoot up to levels like 800, 900, or even further, where even the instruments become redundant in measuring the levels. Some experts have even compared spending an hour out in such levels of pollution to smoking more than 35 cigarettes a day.

b) Poisonous particles

The poisonous articles in the air are a form of particulate matter which toxify the air. These particles are often less than 2.5 microns in diameter, which means that they can easily enter our lungs and affect our system.

c) Sources of pollution

According to various sources, only about 36 percent of the air pollution of Delhi originates from inside the city. Around 34 percent of the air pollution of the city originates from the NCR territory. All the remaining pollution comes from the states which neighbour the city.

6. Control measures which can be taken

While the Government of Delhi has taken several steps at different times, most of them have been circumstantial and temporary. It needs to take certain permanent steps to solve this problem for good. Some of those steps can be:

a) Curbing the number of private vehicles

The high number of private vehicles in the city is a major cause of concern. The Delhi government did try to curb the number of private vehicles by implementing the odd-even rule, which regulated the cars by their number plates. Another thing they can do is to make public transport cheaper, safer, and more time effective. This will give people more incentives to board some kind of public transport instead of taking their own private vehicles.

b) Regulating vehicle emissions

The Supreme Court has recently come down hard on its vehicle regulation standards by saying that any vehicle following the BS4 vehicle standards will not be eligible for sale after the month of March, 2020, as the new BS6 norms are put into place. The BS (Bharat Stage) norms are directly based on the EURO standards which regulate vehicle emissions. However, this does not mean that the vehicles will be illegal to drive. The supreme court, along with various governments, can have the vehicles with the lower BS standards upgraded to higher BS standards.

c) Regulating firecrackers

While the government has banned the sale of all but green firecrackers, this has only increased their demand in the black market. The government needs to implement these regulations harder and come down with stricter laws and penalties for the regulation of firecrackers during the festival.

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