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A Season For Choking

A Season For Choking

Indu was looking forward to celebrating her first Diwali with her husband in Delhi. Hailing from Kangra, the tea-garden town in Himachal Pradesh, her wedding to a Delhi-based engineer this summer had made her move to the big city. She did celebrate Diwali with her husband Suresh Sharma and his family – lighted diyas, went shopping in swank malls, helped her mother-in-law with her Diwali special menu, received gifts from members of the extended family and everyone prayed for her safe pregnancy. “I was excited and very happy,” she said.

However, within days Indu became sick and had to be hospitalized. “I could see the sky first turning grey hiding the sun and then with each passing day, it was becoming hazy all around. But I could never imagine that one day breathing would become an effort,” Indu, in her late twenties told me as we met in the waiting room of a local doctor in Mayur Vihar phase I, East Delhi. “On the Sunday after Diwali, I simply couldn’t breathe and it’s when I sensed Delhi was a horrible place to live in at least post-Diwali,” she said. 

The experience shattered Indu’s dream of a big city and last I heard from her was the news that she and her family had decided to shift to Kangra where she would live during the remaining months of her pregnancy.

Indu was not alone to face the health emergency triggered by a cocktail of deadly pollutants that makes Delhi’s air one of the worst to inhale. For a week after people had celebrated the festival of light commemorating Lord Rama’s victory over Ravana - symbolizing the victory of good over the evil - and return to his Kingdom Ayodhya after 14 years of exile, the ordinary mortals were struggling with the impact of fire crackers burning on the day.

On one particular day, the environmental gadgets had recorded the level of PM2.5 pollutants, which are the most harmful as they can reach deep into the lungs and harm the nervous system as well, had reached at least 999 in parts of the city. This is more than 16 times the safe limit of 60. On this particular day Delhi and surrounding cities and towns wore a thick blanket of smog – air was full of suspended particles of harmful elements that one had read about it chemistry and only seen in the laboratories, throwing up an environmental emergency.

The environmentalist gave two reasons for the situation: the already pollutant-saturated atmosphere that had become stagnant due to fall in temperature and secondly – which was the trigger – the riots of burning of fire crackers on Diwali and paddy stubble in Punjab and Haryana by the farmers. 

Post-Diwali, thus, the National capital region of Delhi with 25 million population had become the most polluted city in the world. It was quite a dubious rise from its ranking as the 11th most polluted city in the world, as per the World health organization. The WHO recommends that PM2.5 be kept below 10 as an annual average. It warns that exposure to average annual concentrations of PM2.5 of 35 or above can increase the change of early death by 15 per cent. Delhi average PM2.5 level at 122 has already crossed the danger mark!

Scientists however warn that while the stubble may be causing carbon particles to hang in the air giving skies the grey and hazy look however, the real culprit behind triggering a host of respiratory and skin diseases in this season is the fire cracker, that the new age Hindus love to burn with gay abandon on Diwali. They warn that when a fire cracker is lighted, the smoke-emanating from it charges the air with partially combusted low volatile organic compounds which remain suspended in the atmosphere for several days. This is not only disturbing for the asthmatic people but can also cause breathing difficulties for a healthy person. No wonder the doctors’ clinics are visited by hordes of patients with lung and breathing ailment and even young children are administered steroids through nebulizer for quick relief from breathlessness.

Doctors warn that many crackers have toxic compounds like copper and cadmium, which stay suspended in the air in dust form. When inhaled these cause damage to the respiratory track and lungs increasing the risk of asthma attacks, bronchitis and symptoms of allergic rhinitis, including sneezing, runny nose and headaches.

 As the festival coincides with the onset of winter and sudden fall in temperatures, the air does not move making pollutants linger on in the air for long.

Health experts say the perception that only fire crackers which give away a loud noise and display of fire are bad is a fallacy. In fact the black tablets that wind up like snake and are considered safe for the smaller children to burn have the worst impact on air quality. According to the Pune based Chest Research Foundation, anyone with an airway disease can suffer badly due to the deadly gases released by the tablet.

Though environmental, green activists and schools have been spreading message of cracker less Diwali, the rise in exhibitionist religiosity makes it difficult for any government or the administrator to impose a ban on the crackers.

In fact after the situation had worsened, the Arvind Kejriwal government in Delhi took emergency steps like closure of schools, vacuum cleaning of selected road and ban on constructions etc. While he blamed the farmers for burning the stubble, Kejriwal too chose to keep mum over the burning of fire crackers in Diwali.

Finally, it was left to the Supreme Court to order ban on the sale of fire crackers in Delhi and NCR region. The court is hearing a petition on the government’s lack of reaction on the alarming air pollution in the region. As a quick and the first remedial step the three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Tirath Singh Thakur passed this verdict.

The ban on fire crackers should be welcomed by the Hindus, as it would restore the beautiful way of celebrating the festival of Deepawali with traditional devotion and gaiety – by lighting the Diyas (earthen lamps).

(Published on 12nd December 2016, Volume XXVIII, Issue 50)#