In April, amidst the economic agony caused by the nationwide lockdown to control the spread of the coronavirus, the citizens of New Delhi noticed a rare phenomenon: blue skies.
As economic activities came to a standstill, most factories stayed shut, construction projects were suspended and there were barely any vehicles and citizens on the streets. And along with our economy, the pollution and all its components declined.
During lockdown, pollutants decreased by 85% to 90%, consistent with the paper published in Current Science on October 10. The study was conducted after the lockdown was imposed in March, and continued through April.
This relief did not last long.
As lockdown ended, the Delhi sky slowly deteriorated back into its former self.
The situation exacerbated with the arrival of the awaited Festival of Lights, Diwali.
Despite the ban on sale and use of firecrackers by the government of Delhi, the pollution on Diwali and the day after were at its maximum in the last four years. A day after Diwali celebrations, the quality of air in Delhi-NCR plummeted into the ‘severe’ category. Delhi saw more polluted air in November 2020 than in it did 2019. Delhi’s air pollution saw an upraise due to lesser rainfall and rampant stubble burning. A key factor was large-scale stubble burning due to early harvesting this year by farmers in the neighbouring states. Punjab alone noted 76,590 incidents of stubble burning this season, which were 55,210 in 2019.
India brought the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 as a strong tool to fight air pollution, but over the decades the governments and courts have ignored it. Experts say that the law is outdated as it does not cover contemporary sources of pollution. The government needs to amend the law.
As North India suffers another air pollution emergency, we come to question the integrity of this law.
The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, aims to empower the “preservation of the quality of air and control of air pollution.” It was enacted to fulfil India’s commitments at the 1972 United Nations environment conference. The law gave powers to state and central governments to take action to improve air quality, enforce pollution control measures, shut down errant industries, and send polluters to jail.
Throughout the years, the law has seen a decrease in its relevance, even as Indian cities climbed to top positions in global air pollution assessments, the newest being the State of global air. Close to zero cases have been filed under the Air Act from northern Indian states in recent years, albeit they face the worst pollution every winter. Even the Supreme Court and governments have ignored the law; measures like the Graded Response Action Plan or the Odd-Even scheme fall on other laws or regulations, some of which have nothing to do with the environment.
As pollution increases in the winter season, parliamentarians, lawyers or activists demand amendments to it or to restore it with a new law, usually to add powers of enforcement. This year, it was the turn of the Solicitor General of India’s to make a similar promise. On 28 October, the government of India authorised the Commission for air quality management in the National Capital Region and adjoining areas ordinance, 2020 to set up a panel to correlate the pollution response between state governments of Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh.
It is not the shortage of laws, but the amending power that has been questioned. With laws that can be pursued, there is no excuse to take such a serious threat with a grain of salt and tread lightly. Air pollution has been a serious issue in northern India especially metropolitan city of New Delhi for the longest time with Delhi sitting in top 10 most polluted cities in the world for the past 5 years
Delhi lost Rs 26,230 crore, equivalent to 5.8 percent of its annual GDP, in the last six months due to air pollution.
Air pollution within the city is associated with the loss of an estimated 24,000 lives in the first half of 2020, according to Greenpeace Southeast Asia. It is also the highest economic cost of air pollution in terms of GDP across 28 major cities globally.
The lockdown period helped us understand the effects of anthropogenic emissions to our surroundings as we noticed a change.