Indian Cities: Air Pollution this Diwali

This Diwali, like last year, cities are seeing alarming pollution levels—with Ahmedabad at “very poor” and New Delhi at “severe”.

An oil lamp lit for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.
Credit: Wilson Mathew

Co-Authored by Dr. Dileep Mavalankar and Sayantan Sarkar

It’s Diwali season, India’s festival of lights. This Diwali, like last year, cities are seeing alarming pollution levels—with Ahmedabad at “very poor” and New Delhi at “severe”. An in-depth Lancet study again rings the alarm bell to act on air pollution. While much more needs to be done, key Indian cities are taking initial action. For example, Ahmedabad is deploying new tools, including a school flag program and a new air quality alert website, while New Delhi is limiting firecrackers, heavy trucks, school hours, and construction activity.

New Lancet Study

Air pollution is the greatest contributor for pollution-related deaths globally, according to a major scientific study published in the Lancet this week. The study finds that globally pollution for multiple sources contributes to nearly 9 million deaths every year—about 16% of deaths worldwide. Led by Philip Landrigan, the dean of global health at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, the study examines data from 130 countries and causes for disease and premature deaths.

Key findings from the study for India and developing economies are:

  • India and China account for the largest number of deaths with India at an estimated 2.5 million and China at 1.8 million deaths.
  • An estimated GDP loss of 1.3% in developing countries, compared to 0.5% in developed.
  • Developing economies can do much more to reduce pollution and protect public health that will benefit economic growth.

As this Diwali is showing, New Delhi continues to be plagued by bad air. Life expectancy in New Delhi could go up by 6 years if National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) are met. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, Ahmedabad has some of the highest air pollution levels in India. The World Health Organization has also found that New Delhi and Ahmedabad rank among the top 20 most polluted cities in the world.

The Ahmedabad 24-hour air quality index (AQI) average showed air pollution levels jumped in the last week from “moderate – yellow” to “red – very poor” the night after Diwali, signaling even higher pollution levels to come. For example, last December, PM2.5 levels at Ahmedabad’s Maninagar station reached 535 micrograms per cubic meter. Meanwhile, New Delhi is experiencing “maroon-severe” air quality, which, while slightly better than in 2016, is still an alarming level of air pollution. The day-long averages of particulate matter PM2.5 reached a staggering 563 in New Delhi. Both Ahmedabad and New Delhi are far above the safe limits for PM2.5 which is 60 micrograms per cubic meter (24-hour average) according to India’s NAAQS.

Ahmedabad’s New Tools

Demonstrating leadership to protect communities from harmful impacts of air pollution, Ahmedabad released two tools during a Diwali workshop as part of the AIR Plan. The innovative Ahmedabad AIR Plan is a health-based program designed to protect and increase awareness among residents on air pollution.

To monitor and communicate air pollution levels, the AIR Plan integrates the new AQI and 10 monitoring stations, developed by the SAFAR program from the Ministry of Earth Science’s Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology-Pune. With the AQI as the center point, the AIR Plan focuses on health risk communication. It puts forth immediate and longer-term actions to increase preparedness to reduce the health impacts of air pollution on vulnerable populations.

“Ahmedabad is moving forward in a proactive and systematic approach with the AIR Plan.”

– Sri Mukesh Kumar, Ahmedabad Municipal Commissioner

The tools released in Ahmedabad are:

  • Children’s Awareness Program. Children are particularly vulnerable to air pollution since they breathe more than adults per pound body weight and have a greater surface area in their respiratory tracts.  In an effort to protect children, Ahmedabad launched a set of Information, Education and Communication (IEC) materials for schools. The IEC materials are part of the first-of-its-kind School Flags Program in India and focuses on raising awareness among children, parents and school authorities on how to reduce exposure to high levels of air pollution.
  • SAHAS Web Alert Registration. Built by IITM, Ahmedabad also launched a web based tool—SAHAS (SAFAR Air Health Alert System). SAHAS serves as an early warning system for impending public health emergencies. It complements the SAFAR AQI, and helps citizens register for receiving air pollution related health alerts generated by SAFAR AQI.

Ahmedabad is also strengthening inter-agency response. The communication channel from IITM to the AMC on the daily forecasts is working well through daily email alerts that are read by the AMC nodal officers. During the Diwali workshop, the discussions focused on identifying the roles and activities of key agencies for alert levels during peak pollution. Leading departments, including health, education, traffic, engineering and construction among others participated in the workshop. The Gujarat State Pollution Control Board also participated and provided an update on potential mitigation strategies.

New Delhi’s Program

Prompted by a Supreme Court of India order, New Delhi is also acting on air pollution. New Delhi, starting this October, will implement a Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP). The GRAP will be enforced by the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution Control and Prevention Authority. Under this plan, the Delhi government will take action to control emissions from both mobile and stationary sources. Major sources include vehicles, road dust, biomass burning, construction, power plants and industries as well as crop-burning in neighboring states.

Also in response to several petitions filed by members of the public, the Supreme Court recently passed an order that bans the sale of fireworks in Delhi-NCR region until early November, well after Diwali celebrations. While a few groups of criticized the fireworks ban, many clean air groups and residents are welcoming the move. For cities to effectively act on high air pollution levels, long-term strategies that integrate government departments, communities, and businesses are critical.

Governments alone are not the answer. Air pollution is a community problem. Ahmedabad is moving forward with a proactive and systematic approach that works towards protecting local communities through the AIR Plan. In Delhi, the local government and courts are taking measures to actively reduce air pollution levels. Both Ahmedabad and New Delhi are taking first steps to tackle soaring pollution.

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