Are high levels of pollution silent killers that Make the city almost a gas chamber?

Eighty thousand trucks, spewing diesel fumes, come into Delhi every day and 75 per cent of them are just driving through to other parts of the country. More than a million motor cars, 10 per cent or more on diesel, and a couple of million motorbikes and scooters are on the roads every day, besides 10,000 buses and 1,000 trains arrive and leave Delhi as well as hundreds of commercial flights. This is only a part of the story of pollution creation, besides similar activities in the immediate neighbourhood of Delhi, besides power generation plants within and around Delhi to keep Delhi lit and heated in the winter months.

It has been planned to stop the diesel trucks, but many of them, it is believed, get away even without paying a fee levied on them. The Delhi government does not have the police force or transport staff to monitor all the entry points properly. What is the result? About 18 hours or more a day, there is fog or smog with high levels of toxic gases. New laws make the movement of goods free of hindrances like   barriers at State boundaries of bygone days.

A newspaper headline sums up the crisis created by “silent killers that make Delhi a gas chamber” and defines the high concentration of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, besides carbon monoxide and ozone layers, all of which infect bodily airways that cause respiratory infections, difficulty in breathing, asthma, even heart attacks, damage to lungs, reduced alertness, corneal haze as well as eye and throat irritation.

The National Green Tribunal has ordered the Delhi Government to come up with a plan to curb pollution immediately. The Aravali hills in Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan have been stripped of their green cover in the face of rapid pace of construction. Efforts to grow new trees cannot be matched by the speed with which they are cut down for the new projects. High rises, flyovers and residential as well as commercial projects have been coming up all over. Even the Sivalik hills in Himachal around Shimla and Sahayadri range on the west coast have had quick redevelopment with river beds being replaced by bricks, stone, mortar, steel and glass, apart from elevators.

The pollution control agencies and authorities have been preoccupied with monitoring exceptionally high levels of particulate matter such as PM 2.5 and PM 10 to try to enforce the graded response action plan. For this reason, the concentration of poisonous gases could not be immediately taken into account. Air quality data shows that levels of nitrogen oxide, primarily the result of burning diesel, shot up seven times above the safe levels.

Carbon monoxide, which shot up three times on certain days, could linger for a month or more. Its concentration increases during incomplete burning of garbage and accentuates green house gases. Volatile organic compounds react during sunlight and raise ozone levels and the maximum of 143 was recorded at Delhi University against the permissible level of 100.

 Even the Sri Lankan cricketers playing their second Test match found it hard to remain in the field in Delhi with masks and several of them walked away, forcing the Indian captain, Virat Kohli, to declare his innings and ask the Sri Lankans to bat on the second day of the match on December 3.

It is being suggested that Delhi should not host any sporting activity, especially international, between November and February every year in view of the extreme pollution in the city. Whether this idea is indeed practical and feasible is hard to tell. A lot of money is at stake and will the organizers of the show be ready to lose all of it? Will the local authorities be able to curb pollution in the National Capital so that life is normal through the winter months?

Will it be possible to impose the restrictions that have been proposed by the Supreme Court and National Green Tribunal to clean up the Delhi air? There are a host of authorities that are involved in doing what is required; but all of them have been helpless, at least so far. Will light rain or a drizzle provide some temporary relief or curb pollution a little bit?

Lights in the city gardens not only disturb the sleep of the people living on their periphery, but also wake up the birds in their nests in the trees, and they start chirping, which they normally do at dawn and dusk. Should lights be facing downward wherever possible, especially in the gardens, parking lots and driveways? The International Dark Sky Association believes that it should be so.


Lalit Sethi is a Journalist of long standing and a commentator on Political and Social Issues.