City authorities advise vulnerable people to remain indoors during Hindu festival as they struggle to keep smog under control
Authorities in Delhi are calling on inhabitants to forego traditional fireworks during this week’s Hindu festival of Diwali in a bid to free the Indian capital from toxic smog.
The festival, celebrated throughout the country, has been blamed in recent years for exacerbating the appalling air quality in the Indian capital, already the most-polluted city in the world, according to the World Health Organisation.
A combination of fireworks, the illegal burning of crop residue in surrounding rural areas, an increase in traffic and weather conditions have combined to send levels of potentially deadly fine particulates, known as PM2.5, up to about 800 micrograms per cubic metre in some areas this year.
Anything higher than an average of 25 micrograms per cubic metre in one day, or 10 micrograms per cubic metre over a year, is considered dangerous by the WHO. Levels of other pollutants are also extremely high.
The smog has prompted the country’s top government meteorologists to take the rare step of issuing a health warning. “Everyone with heart and lung diseases, older adults and children should should avoid all physical activity outdoors. There is a serious risk respiratory effects in general public in prolonged exposure,” an official told local media.
Thirteen of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in India, the WHO has said.
Narendra Modi, the prime minister, is likely to discuss the issue of clean energy with David Cameron during his visit to London this week. India faces pressure to reduce its soaring carbon emissions at the Paris conference later this month.
China has also been hit by a spike in pollution levels in the north-east of the country. In one city, levels of PM2.5 peaked at over 1,400 micrograms per cubic metre.
The bid to convince Delhi’s inhabitants to give up fireworks, though relayed by English-language papers favoured by the elite, did not seem to be having much effect on Wednesday and the city resounded with firecrackers and bangers.
Municipal authorities are now considering changing the law to force manufacturers of fireworks to avoid highly toxic ingredients. “The norms for regulating firecrackers need to be revisited,” said Delhi’s leading environmental official, Ashwani Kumar.
“Studies have shown that even if some components of these firecrackers fall to the ground, there is a chance they could enter our foodchain. This can cause damage to lungs and the metabolic system,” Kumar told the Indian Express.
Officials are also examining proposals for a congestion zone, like that operating in London. A ban on firecrackers, or restrictions on car ownership, is thought to be unworkable.
“I love my car and I love my fireworks,” said Surdeep Singh, a businessman in east Delhi who bought a new SUV a week ago. “That is what Diwali is about … bangs and flashes and shopping. No one can take these from me, only over my life.”
About 200,000 cars were sold in India in October, the highest total for the pre-Diwali shopping season in almost five years and an indication that growth in the south Asian power is accelerating.
Experts believe that about a third of Delhi’s pollution is caused by cars and, particularly, trucks. But stubble burning, when short stalks of leftover straw are deliberately purged, is also a contributing factor in surrounding rural areas. Though authorities have pledged to crack down on the practice, enforcement remains extremely lax. In Haryana, to the west of Delhi, this week, skies were dark with smoke from clearly visible roadside agricultural fires.
Attempts to enforce emission norms have also been stymied by weak enforcement.
The WHO found that India has the world’s highest rate of death from respiratory disease, with 159 per 100,000 in 2012, about 10 times that of Italy, five times that of the UK and twice that of China. One study found that half of Delhi’s 4.4 million schoolchildren would never recover full lung capacity.
“If you look at lung function in children [here], there is significant decline with constant exposure. This will probably be irreversible. For adults, there is also a more rapid decline than usual with age,” Dr Guleria, a lung specialist at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, told the Guardian earlier this year.
Delhi saw significant improvement in its air quality a decade ago following a slew of measures, including converting buses and autorickshaws to run on gas, moving small industries to the outskirts of the city and raising emission standards.