How Did We Get Here in Delhi – Is Redemption Possible?

While we woke up gasping for fresh air and went to our workplaces hoping for adequate visibility to reach safely, the one question that crossed every Delhiite’s mind was – what went wrong? How did the air quality degrade so much in just a couple of days? There’s no simple answer to this question. In fact, this problem has been building up for the past couple of years. The skies above Delhi that were supposed to be of a beautiful sky blue color slowly turned to have a tinge of grey and it became the new normal.

The laws and policies that were strengthened each year right before the onset of the smog season tended to relax a little after the season had passed. Moreover, individual efforts of the state government weren’t enough – the pollution levels in Delhi are directly influenced by neighboring states and hence a centralized approach was needed. Despite the fact that aspects such as meteorological factors too have a role to play alongside the geographical, physical, and chemical factors – there are a few things that went wrong and could have been controlled to prevent Delhiites from inhaling toxic smog. Despite the firecracker ban in Delhi, the scales still indicated a “very poor” quality of air in Delhi. Adding to the effects of firecrackers on air, the stubble burning in parts of Haryana and Punjab have significantly contributed to the particulate matter in Delhi air. The stubble burning in farmlands is done to prepare the farmland after harvest for the next sowing. It is estimated that nearly 32 million tonnes of stubble are burnt each year which is responsible for 25% of the total air pollution in Delhi around the onset of winters. According to the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), the toxic gases that are generated in this process are not only hazardous for respiratory health they also increase the risk of cancer, kidney damage, cataract, and rheumatoid arthritis. While the people closest to these stubble burning sites are at maximum risk, its effects are deadly even kilometers away from where particulate matter might disperse to.

Additionally, truck emissions, emissions from diesel generators, dust from construction sites, furnace oil plants, industrial and domestic fuels, and biomass burning only made the situation worse.  There are very few measures being implemented to monitor the burden of these factors on the overall pollution of Delhi which makes it even more difficult to estimate the enormous impact they have on Delhi’s air. The severely toxic condition of the air was further aggravated by the current weather situation in Delhi. The moisture combined with low temperature and lack of wind is trapping the particulate matter instead of allowing it to disperse. 

 The situation of Delhi is awfully distressing and the only way we can guard ourselves and our loved ones right now is through minimizing our exposure to the toxic smog. It is crucial to stay indoors as much as possible, avoid any sort of physical activity outdoors, use air purifiers while indoors, and wear a respirator mask while outdoors. Respirator masks are highly efficient at filtering out particulate matter from toxic smog and need to be worn at all times while stepping out in this lethal smog to prevent permanent damage to the lungs and the respiratory tract. These respirator masks are even more essential for children, the elderly, those with respiratory conditions and those whose occupation requires them to be outdoors for longer periods of time. It is important to wear a respirator mask as normal masks and handkerchiefs that people usually tie around the mouth and nose during this time are simply not equipped to battle the particulate matter that can easily pass through them. A respirator mask is equipped with filters that are designed to protect you from the particulate matter by filtering it out making sure the air you’re breathing through the mask is safer than the ambient air. 

The long term solution to this problem can only be figured out once experts from all fields decide to join forces and make efficient policies. The central and state governments must collaborate with scientists, environmentalists, healthcare professionals, engineers, and experts of other fields to settle on sustainable policies and laws which can prevent such a situation from arising in the future. The cracker ban should be made more concrete and strict while the illegal construction in and around Delhi should be checked. Steps to monitor industrial pollution, implementation of pollution monitoring in coal industries, and control on rampant construction are also important. Public transport should be evolved to make it more efficient and comfortable so that more people decide to use public transport. Illegal entry of heavy vehicles emitting huge amounts of toxic emissions should also be checked. Stubble burning in farmlands around the capital can only be permanently stopped by introducing farmers to the mechanization of their farms while ensuring a profit for them.

Mass awareness programs should be launched amongst farmers to make them aware of the benefits of mechanization and the risks associated with stubble burning. Additionally, efforts such as protection of forests in and around Delhi should continue while innovative solutions such as vertical gardening should also be explored and promoted. The city we’re living in has slowly started to resemble a gas chamber. The health hazards associated with the smog are deadly and have a lifelong impact in some cases. While the smog is expected to last a few more days, let us begin to be more conscious and proactive for the future. It is vital for citizens to act as crusaders to protect our city’s air. If we forget about the present condition of Delhi in the days to come, there would be very little we’ll be able to do if such a situation revisits our city in the future. We must urge our lawmakers to keep the health of the citizens at the top of their priority list while making sure that the policies and regulations being implemented are in the best interests of Delhi’s air quality