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Maybe it is late, but we can turn around: Addressing the rise of Smog in North India

By Sayan Basak posted 07-05-2020 08:59


I still remember the news on Nov 1, 2019, where the newspaper headline highlighted that the residents of New Delhi were submerged under a thick layer of smog, causing severe respiratory problems along with headaches and teary eyes. The air quality index touched 530, which is tagged as ‘severe plus’ or ’emergency level.’ Moreover, the particulate matter’s quantification was cited to be 500 μg/m³ (PM 10) and 300 μg/m³ (PM 2.5), which raises the question ‘if this is the current scenario, where are we heading to?’

I remember the Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority of the National Capital Region had declared the incident a ‘public health emergency’ and advised the residents to minimize personal exposure to the outdoors. Smog in Northern India is a burgeoning event that has kindled from the past decade, especially in the winters. Works of literature cite multiple factors that stimulate smog formation, including motor vehicle emission, emission from power plants ( coal-based and other industrial sectors), burning of domestic and agricultural wastes. The meteorological factors, especially in states like Haryana and Punjab, do not favor high wind speed. We simply catalyze the process by producing unchecked emission level both from the industrial and the domestic sector. It’s not only the case of these two states. In fact, the entire Indo-Gangetic plain has emerged as the ‘hotspot,’ where the annual particulate matter level remains more than double than the benchmark value. The emission sourcing from 700 million people dwelling in this region, coupled with the natural dust that is brought in from the western arid region ( in the summers), collectively degrades the air quality level of entire Northern India. 

While a detailed study is still to be conducted, which circumscribes the impact of the health owing to the surge of smog, the records suggest that cardiovascular and respiratory cases derived from smog heightened recently. The neonatal mortality rate in the states in North India has climbed up, elevating the risk of diabetes, cancer, cataracts, and cognitive impairment. 

A report published in 2018 revealed that air pollution contributed more respiratory and allied diseases (respiratory infections, chronic obstructive lung disease, heart attacks, stroke, diabetes, and lung cancer) in India than tobacco usage. The prediction cited by Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago using the Air Quality Life Index claimed that the Indo-Gangetic plain should experience a reduction in the life expectancy by about 7 years, primarily due to the elevated levels of the particulate pollution. 

Clean air shall always be a dream for the people living in Northern India if events continue to shape as it is tuning now. The government had tried to shut down all backdated coal-based power plans along with making the vehicular emission laws more stringent and restricting unwanted movement of the trucks across the cities; nothing seems to work out significantly both as a short term and long term plan. Although we are experiencing a slight dip in the air pollution levels, we still need to curb 65% of the pollution to bring the limits back to the national standards. 

We should realize that we should be that slight change, which may revolutionize the current escalation of the pollution levels in these states. From initiating campaigns and educating people, we should take the first step in not letting our states cross the tipping point. To be honest, if the scenario continues, not only the North Indian states but the entire country shall flip over the equilibrium of the environment, which then can’t be reverted.