Clean air is an essential element for the very existence of life. However, the problem of air pollution is slowly engulfing the world, while India is evolving to be the epicentre of the most toxic air. Air pollution, an environmental hazard is one of the major causes of various diseases causing mortality. One such example is the thick, grey pall of smog that has settled over major cities across the country, particularly in the country's capital Delhi. The residents of the capital city are on the verge of facing a public health emergency, as the Air Quality Index (AQI) has already exceeded the ‘severe’ category.

As per the SAFAR website, an initiative of the Ministry of Earth Science, Govt. of India, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune, the AQI of Delhi has already crossed the 400 mark. It is also predicted that air quality will worsen or remain poor in the coming days.

"India’s crisis of air pollution should be tackled systematically, to curtail the huge burden of associated ill-health due to both air pollution and the COVID-19 pandemic. This year shows that after the blue-sky experience during the lockdown due to COVID-19 and the monsoon months, pollution levels have started to rise again due to the opening up of the economy with business as usual in terms of vehicular emissions, construction dust and garbage burning,” said Sharmila Deo, Co-ordinator, Air Quality Advocacy, Parisar, Pune, in a conversation with The EarthView.

COVID-19 pandemic, a disease caused by the SARS CoV-2 virus for which people with heart and lung disease are particularly at risk in case of an infection, claimed more than 1,10,000 lives in India. Though the linkage between air pollution and COVID-19 is still a matter of further investigation, clear evidence between air pollution and increased heart and lung disease can be attributed to high levels of air pollution during winter months in India and other South Asian countries which can worsen the effects of COVID-19.

After the national capital region has been shrouded in a thick blanket of smog, a study entitled State of Global Air 2020 says that 1.67 million annual deaths were recorded in 2019 from stroke, heart attack, diabetes, lung cancer, and chronic lung diseases in India.

Deo explains the reason behind increasing pollution during the winter seasons. "Due to colder conditions, the atmospheric boundary layer starts deteriorating post-monsoon season. This is the effect of changing wind direction. As temperature dips, to the inversion height - which is the layer thereafter, pollutants cannot disperse into the upper layer of the atmosphere. This increases the concentration of pollutants in the air as this brings pollutants close to the ground depending on wind speed (ventilation coefficient)."

"Further different regional emissions such as crop residue and garbage burning in huge quantities, vehicular emissions also add to poor air quality. The combination of these to the meteorological elements makes the region prone to pollution,” she added.

She further said, "Furthermore, high-speed winds act as a helpful hand in dispersing pollutants, but winters bring a fall in wind speed overall as compared to in summers. And factors such as dust storms reinforce the already high base pollution levels in the city, resulting in air quality dips.

What is Air Quality Index:
Air Quality Index or AQI is used to measure the concentration of PM 2.5 levels – fine particles of less than 2.5 microns that can penetrate the bloodstream and infiltrate the lungs and heart - which are linked to chronic respiratory diseases.

Deo explains, "Pollution jeopardizes human life, more so in India than in any other country. Air Quality Index (AQI) is a numerical scale that measures and broadcasts the air quality of an area on a particular day. This includes eight pollutants namely PM10, PM2.5, NO2, SO2, CO, O3, NH3, and Pb, that are majorly put up into consideration while deriving AQI of a region. Simply put, one can understand it as public health risks increase as the AQI rises."

How Does the AQI Work?
"Assume a graph that runs from 0 to 500. The higher the AQI value, the more severe the level of air pollution, and the greater the health concern. For example, an AQI mark of 50 represents good air quality, while an AQI mark over 300 represents hazardous air quality. In general terms, an AQI value of 100 normally denotes the national air quality standard for the pollutant i.e. AQI marks below 100 are generally thought of as satisfactory. When AQI values are above 100, air quality is deemed to be unhealthy, and then concern raises as AQI values get higher, " Sharmila briefed on AQI.

The six levels of health concern of AQI and what they mean are:
1.) "Good" - AQI between 0 to 50: Air quality is supposed to be satisfactory.
2.) "Moderate" - AQI between 51 to 100: Air quality is acceptable, still, for some pollutants, health concerns may occur. "Unhealthy" - AQI between 101 to 150: Generally no risks for normal people, but people with lung disease, older adults, and children are at risk.
3.) "Unhealthy for everyone" - AQI between 151 to 200: Everyone commences experiencing some health effects.
4.) "Very Unhealthy" - AQI between 201 to 300: Majorly citizens will be affected due to particles in the air.
5) "Hazardous" - AQI more than 300: Hazardous environment and health warnings of emergency conditions.
6.) "Severe" - AQI more than 400: Serious health conditions can take place with everyone just exposing to air.

Post-Diwali Air Pollution:

Last year, increase in AQI levels were seen post-Diwali where fireworks played an overwhelming role in executing a toxic cocktail. Some cities' pollution levels increased drastically that have matched up to Delhi's are Lucknow, Patna, and Kolkata.

The National Green Tribunal on November 2, this year issued a notice to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and four state governments on the use of firecrackers, deeming a ban from November 7 to 30 in the interest of public health and environment.

After the issuing of notice, several states have issued orders on the burning of Firecrackers. Starting from Rajasthan and Odisha to Bengal and Haryana, these states have made it mandatory to ban the use of firecrackers, seeing the pollution and effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

As high levels of air pollution continue in many parts of India, various cities are coming up to address the air pollution crisis through different campaigns. These actions include the “Red light on, Gaadi Off” initiative by the Delhi government, strengthening air monitoring networks, adopting electric vehicles to reduce pollution from the transportation industry, and controlling industrial emissions.

Talking about solutions Deo says, "Solutions are already well known and they are even a part of the longer-term National Clean Air Program instituted by the government. The challenge lies in the timely execution of the actions mentioned therein. Air quality is an inter-sectoral issue, proper coordination and implementation is the key to reach its targets.

The NCAP (National Clean Air Program) aims to scale down hazardous particulate matter pollution by 20-30% by 2024 (compared to 2017 levels). The NCAP helps the city to put actions into force that can help the country achieve cleaner air. Under the NCAP, all 102 reported cities that exist with higher national air quality index then specified, city-specific action plans will be developed and implemented.

Actions in Vain:

India’s city, state, and national governments altogether have stepped in to curtail these massive levels of pollution but the efforts remain isolated. These plans also don't create a long term impact to solve problems and prevent public health crises. A study released by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria and the Council on Energy, Environment, and Water (CEEW) in New Delhi pointed out that Indian citizens are likely to breathe air with high concentrations of PM2.5 in 2030 with the ongoing policies and action plans.

Nevertheless, the capital of India i.e Delhi is recognised as the world’s most polluted city in 2014 and 2016 respectively by WHO and the United States Environmental Protection Agency. One of the major reasons for Delhi's toxic air is the burning of farm waste in neighbouring states like Punjab and Haryana. So, the central government has also allotted a fund of 17 billion rupees ($231 million) to the states to manage stubble in the fields and motivate farmers to stop burning it.

Though, the State Government of Delhi, in recent past years, has taken many binding measures such as Odd-Even Regulation, a complete ban on coal-based power plants, suspending construction sites during peak pollution season, etc. Regardless of the measures taken by the State Government of Delhi to curb air pollution, the AQI lingers to be on the dangerous mark.

Deo says, “Particulate matter has been the main cause of not just severe respiratory diseases but also cardiopulmonary and neurological diseases, cancer, liver and kidney damage, and even effects on mental health.

The problem of particulate pollution is even more affected by location meteorology and variation in seasons makes some regions like Delhi a pollution chamber. Firecrackers emit PM2.5 and hence are very hazardous to human health. Therefore, this year some states are banning the use of firecrackers.

Therefore, cleaner air must be India’s priority for economic growth with the concern of benefiting lives and fewer incidences of PM-related sickness. Better pollutant monitoring systems, making the public concerned about PM-related issues, and use of cleaner fuels, etc. would go a long way in abolishing the fatal effects of particulates.

Deo also suggests some steps to reforms. She said, “Individual actions like avoid unnecessary idling of your automobile, switching from private vehicles to public transport or cycling or walking, composting wet garbage and disposing of dry garbage responsibly, can certainly help to some extent. But the government machinery is required at all levels to bring about any significant change where air quality is concerned.

Written by: Manoj Khetan