Sunday, October 26, 2014


A recent report that the air quality in Delhi severely deteriorated a day after Diwali with the city recording nine times higher pollution level than the normal is itself  very disturbing but more disturbing is the nonchalance with which citizens take such reports as if it is is nothing of much significance to them. This is all the more appalling after the nation's conscience was awakened by the Primi Minister on Mahatma Gandhi's birth day on October 2 this year by announcing the launching of the famous Swach Bharath Abhiyan which is sought to be an instrument to transform the country from its present 'thucha bharath" image into a clean nation with clean people. It is famously said that Indians are more enamored by the "title" than the content and this Diwali they seem to have justified that reputation! 

According to the latest study the Respirable Suspended Particulate Matter (RSPM) which determines the quality of air and its fitness to be breathed reached a staggering level of more than 530 ug per cubic meter (microgram) following three days of reckless fire cracker mania that gripped the country. Air pollution can adversely affect the breathing of children and adults alike with the former more vulnerable to respiratory diseases like Asthma. Normally a RSPM concentration of 60 mg per cubic meter is considered tolerable and the post Diwali level of 530 ug, almost 10 times higher than this figure needs to be taken seriously. It should be recalled that World Health Organization recently expressed grave concern about the Air quality in Delhi and warned about its serious consequences to its inhabitants. As usual Government denied that there is any thing serious about such a situation!

Particulate matter of 10 um (micron) size can cause cancer like diseases and if they are still finer, viz 2.5 um the danger is multiplied several fold. Small sized particulates can penetrate into lungs and blood streams causing significant DNA mutations resulting in multiple diseases which are difficult to be treated successfully. Many countries have set zero limits for particulates of size 2.5 um and less, the upper limit for 10 um size particulates is as low as 50 ug per cubic meter. In the Indian context one does not know the proportion of 2.5 um size present in the RSPM figure. According to health experts for every increase of 10 ug per cubic meter of suspended particles in the air, the risk of lung cancer rises by 22%. More dangerously if the particle size is less than 2.5 um the chances of lung cancer increases by 36%.

In India such warnings are routinely issued by scientists at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology before Diwali celebration kick starts which practically no one including the citizens cares to listen and take appropriate pre-emptive steps to avoid ruining the air quality. The newly launched Air Quality Index is supposed to be a tool for monitoring air quality on a daily basis and advise the nation regarding remedial steps that need to be taken. Unfortunately in India Scientists are rarely listened to as babus/bureaucrats rule the roost! World-wide India is considered one of the worst sinners when it comes to air pollution and it is a shame that 13 of the worst polluted cities are in India among 1600 cities in this planet. What a credential for a country which harbors great ambitions to be an economic power house similar to the United States and China. It is not a consolation that Beijing in China is often dubbed as "Greyjing" because of the high air pollution reported in this city almost throughout the year, mostly caused by industrial pollutants.  It must be realized, sooner than later by Indians, that for a nation to be great, its citizens have to be honest, responsible with high civic sense, dedicated and hard working, humanitarian and proud to be a part of the country's achievements and ethos. Whether the present PM can motivate the population to gain such a character is a million dollar question.

Interestingly Kolkatta does not lag too far behind Delhi boasting of a RSPM of 417 ug while Chennai's RSPM was 320 ug. Whether these figures are high because of Diwali or they are uniformly high through out the year is some thing which needs to be monitored over a period of time. According to some international experts air pollution in India is high because of millions of chulas being used by the rural folks for cooking of food and heating water in more than 5 lakh villages across the country throwing out high particulate smoke though wide spread adoption of LPG lately must have reduced this smoke load significantly. Added to this indiscriminate burning of garbage in cities and villages, post harvest burning of vast tracts of agricultural fields, uncontrolled forest fires and open cremation of bodies by most of the population must be contributing hugely to the particulate as well as toxic load to the air across the country. Exhaust fumes from automobiles and power stations also contribute to air pollution very significantly.

Speaking about Diwali, the recent Tweeting by the PM congratulating those who cleaned up their places after bursting crackers promptly may be timely but those citizens did this admirable job must be a microscopic minority. During the three days beginning 22 October the streets in most towns and cities were looking like a war zone with debris from the burst crackers strewn all around with neither the people who did this nor the civic authorities too much bothered about cleaning them up. Though there is supposed to be a law which bars bursting of crackers after 10 pm, this was blatantly violated by many people with no consideration for their fellow citizens and millions of other creatures like birds, dogs, cats etc! High decibel crackers are known to have a detrimental effect on the hearing faculty of human beings and it is sad that those who suffer are not the one perpetuating this act but innocent fellow citizens who are present nearby out of compulsions. Millions of our citizens and thousands of our politicians visit countries like the US where there are strict laws governing bursting of crackers but they promptly forget them when they return to this pervasive country. It is time that clear guidelines are evolved for organizing fire displays during Diwali or Dassara by the civic bodies in well ear marked, secluded areas where high tech fire crackers can be deployed for the pleasure of those who are obsessed with light and sound.  


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