Traditionally, Diwali is meant to be a festival of lights and celebrations. But over the years it has come to be associated with high levels of air and noise pollution, caused primarily by reckless bursting of firecrackers. While the air pollution chokes the city, the noise pollution too has been found to be harmful for children, senior citizens and even animals and birds. The Hindu looks at the phenomenon and the clean-up act….

Every year on Diwali day, as millions burst firecrackers emitting nauseous and toxic fumes, air pollution levels in the Capital shoot up. Whether it gets registered or not in equal measures in the observatories of various pollution control bodies depends largely on the air flow or wind speed on that day.

Last Diwali when the wind velocity was high, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee had this to say: “In general, the concentration of pollutants has shown a decrease this year compared with last year. This may be attributed to the concerted and sustained anti-firecrackers campaign and active participation of the Capital’s citizens in the campaign.”

The data furnished by the air pollution control centres was clearly in favour of the argument. Nobody wanted to yield an inch to how the air circulation pattern was sweeping the pollution away.

This year the tables have turned on such claims even before Diwali. The combined effect of cyclone Nilam, which made a landfall in South India before proceeding to deposit moisture-laden air in the North, and the cold air flowing in from the North-West gave the Capital an experience of an inversion phenomenon in which the air hangs heavy in the absence of wind. With high levels of smoke present in the air due to a variety of reasons, it led to the creation of a dangerous cocktail.

The haze and smog continued for nearly a week and as Delhiites struggled for breath and the asthmatic had to resort to inhalers and masks to protect themselves, the Government also stirred into action as the air pollution levels, as per the Centre for Science and Environment, reached the “pre-CNG days”.

The Delhi Cabinet expressed concern over the situation. Images from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) were used to find an answer to the problem. It was then discovered that much of the smog was caused by burning of rice husk and stalks by farmers in their fields in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.

Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit then directed her Environment Department to take up the matter with the Union Environment and Forests Ministry and the National Capital Region Planning Board. She also directed the Environment Secretary to explain the causes and ordered a comprehensive source appointment study by the Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur into the entire phenomenon. Then around the middle of the week the smog cleared as the wind speed improved. But with Diwali round the corner, worries persist.

Ms. Dikshit said every effort was being made to ensure success of the “Say No To Crackers” campaign which has had some impact on pollution levels through its appeal among school children and consequently their parents. “Cracker bursting in Delhi has gone down over the past few years since the campaign was launched. We are confident that this year too fewer crackers would be burst,” she added.

The Chief Minister said appeals were being made through the print media and FM radio urging people to celebrate the festival with sweets and lights. “The biggest achievement, as I see it, is that in the intervening period between Dussehra and Diwali very few crackers are burst nowadays and we do not have prolonged periods of pollution due to this.”

Ms. Dikshit said the eco-clubs set up in schools and various non-government organisations have again been roped in to ensure a relatively smoke-free Diwali this time round.

The question asked by many is why such campaigns are reserved only for Diwali: “The spectacle of firecrackers being burnt in huge numbers is carried on for half-hour before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi and others at Ramlila Maidan before the effigies of Ravan, Kumbhakaran and Meghnad are set alight on Dussehra. Does that not cause air pollution? Is their presence at such events not an endorsement of the act which leads to air and noise pollution?”

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