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At the end of the monsoon season over North India, in mid-to-late October and most of November, the Delhi NCR region experiences Episode 1 of its long air pollution season. The residue burning from the paddy fields across the states of Punjab, Haryana, UP, Uttarakhand and more creates an annual combustion event that impacts the health of over 700 million people in the densely populated Indo-Gangetic Plain. The timing of this event at the onset of winter, with the lower morning temperatures, keep the pollutants lower near the ground, where we breathe and make it harder to disburse.
It is not just the toxic haze that worsens but it pollutes swathes of the northern parts of the country and creates a massive health crisis, putting hundreds of millions of people at risk. Some estimates state that farmers in India burn more then 23 million tonnes of paddy stubble each year.
The onset of winters brings farm fires with it, massively impacting the nation’s capital, dramatically raising the air quality index, and increasing the PM2.5 to more than 100 times the safe threshold levels defined by the World Health Organization (WHO). After the monsoon season ends in the country, the meteorological conditions favour a more stable atmosphere where the pollutants accumulate and reside for a longer duration, leading to severe levels of pollutions. In 2020, it is estimated that 1.8 million people died from air pollution in India, way more than COVID.
Experts suggest that Covid-19 and its effects worsen with a deterioration in air quality and cited a direct link between 30% of total covid deaths in the world and air pollution. As the country is recovering from the 3rd wave of the pandemic, it is a shared responsibility of all humans to consider planetary health and not add to the already existing burden on the medical infrastructure. A study conducted in 2019 suggests that when a person is exposed to high level of particulate emissions, it decreases the functionality of the human lungs, which has a more adverse impact on children, who are more likely to develop asthma or chronic pulmonary diseases.
With all the schools and public spaces opening, the children are as exposed to the outside world as the adults are. As we all pray for the COVID pandemic to end, we need to collectively prepare for the paddy burning season which usually starts in the beginning of October every year, with conditions intensifying in late October once the wind direction changes to one out of the North West. The local combustion from the diyas and fireworks during the festive season only adds to the problem.
While the Government of Delhi had reversal of air pollution as an election promise in 2020, so far, the initiatives have been more band-aid fixes and it is apparent that there is no comprehensive strategy. In any case, air pollution knows no boundaries and the Delhi Government will need to work with the Governments of Punjab, Haryana, UP, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan and more to reduce emissions at the source, in the entire airshed.
Any reversal of air pollution for this upcoming season looks highly unlikely in the absence of any comprehensive plan. The blog is more of a bugle call to the residents of North India that ‘Winter is Coming.’
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