Delhi has turned into a gas chamber, says environment minister: Why is the Capital gasping for breath again?

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Choking… That’s the feeling most people in Delhi must be experiencing as the air quality has deteriorated to dangerous levels.

The air quality in Delhi today was in the ‘very poor’ category with an Air Quality Index standing of 364 at 8 am. On Wednesday (2 November), Delhi’s Air Quality Index (AQI) stood at 376 (the ‘very poor’ category), improving from Tuesday’s AQI of 424 (‘severe’ category) — which was the worst since 26 December 2021 when it was 459.

The air pollution in the national capital prompted the Arvind Kejriwal government to urge people to work from home to reduce vehicular pollution. Delhi’s Environment Minister Gopal Rai also suggested the use of carpooling in an attempt to reduce vehicular pollution — considered to be one of the major factors turning Delhi’s air unbreathable.

The minister added the Delhi government will run a special drive at the 13 pollution hotspots in Delhi, including Narela, Anand Vihar, Mundka, Dwarka and Punjabi Bagh. “Fire tenders will be deployed at these places to sprinkle water,” he said.

The worsening air quality also prompted the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) asking the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in the national capital to shut schools till the situation improved. NCPCR Chairperson Priyank Kanoongo wrote to the chief secretary and strongly recommended considering appropriate action. He urged the Delhi government to consider shutting schools in the interest of the children until air quality in the national capital improved.

What has led to Delhi turning into a gas chamber? We examine the reasons.

Rise in stubble burning

While there are several factors to blame for the deteriorating air quality in Delhi, at present, most fingers are pointing to stubble burning in neighbouring areas of Punjab and Haryana.

On Wednesday, the day when Delhi’s AQI stood at 376 in the ‘very poor’ category, Punjab recorded a whopping 3,634 farm fires on a single day, the season’s highest single day figure so far.

According to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), the fire count increased from 1,842 recorded on Tuesday.

IARI data shows that Punjab has recorded 21,480 paddy residue burning events from 15 September onwards. This is around 19 per cent more than the figure of 18,066 recorded till 2 November last year, but lower than the figure of 37,756 recorded till 2 November 2020, and 22,720 recorded till 2 November 2019.

Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav also highlighted that it was the rise in Punjab’s stubble burning incidents that was causing Delhi to gasp for air.

On Twitter, the minister blamed the party for turning the capital into a “gas chamber” and accused it of a “scam”

.

Data provided by the SAFAR forecasting system has shown that the contribution of stubble burning to PM2.5 levels in Delhi on Wednesday was 12 per cent.

The Decision Support System, a tool developed by the Ministry of Earth Sciences and the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), meanwhile said the contribution of farm fires peaked at around 10 per cent on Wednesday, with an average contribution of around 7.5 per cent.

Urban Emissions, a platform to analyse air pollution across the country, also estimated the contribution of stubble burning or open fires to Delhi’s PM 2.5 to be 12.5 per cent on Wednesday. It forecasts this to rise to 27 per cent by Thursday.

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Unfavourable weather

Besides the rise in stubble burning, the weather gods and science are also at play. A key aspect that contributes to increased pollution in winters in Delhi is thermal inversion — when cool air remains closer to the surface trapped under a layer of warm air.

This thermal inversion acts as a lid and keeps smoke and other pollutants from rising into the atmosphere and dispersing. This, obviously, negatively impacts air quality.

Additionally, meteorologically, the pre-winter conditions mean colder, heavier air descends, bringing in the smoke from farm fires in Punjab and Haryana that have travelled through high-level transport winds.

The haze in Delhi then stops sunlight from penetrating, limiting the vertical headroom for pollutants even from local emissions to be dispersed in the blanket of haze closer to the ground.

Cars, cars everywhere

Delhi’s vehicular density, which has increased by approximately 21 times in the past three decades, is another reason for Delhi’s poor air levels.

The latest assessment by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) showed that over half of PM 2.5 pollution from local sources in Delhi during the Diwali week (21-26 October) was owing to vehicular emissions.

According to CSE's indicative data, vehicles' daily share of pollution varied between 49.3 per cent and 53 per cent during the week of Diwali.

Principal programme manager at CSE's Clean Air and Sustainable Mobility unit Vivek Chattopadhyay said, “The vehicular contribution was followed by household pollution (residential) at 13 per cent, industries at 11 per cent, construction at seven per cent, waste burning and the energy sector at five per cent each, and road dust and other sources at four per cent each. This observation is consistent with the trends evaluated during the previous winter in Delhi.”

While politicians continue to battle it out, Delhiites will have to grapple with the poor air, with a SAFAR advisory suggesting sensitive groups avoid overexertion and outdoor physical activities.

With inputs from agencies

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Delhi has turned into a gas chamber, says environment minister: Why is the Capital gasping for breath again?
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