June 01, 2020
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Winter's Weight

Delhi's residents are in danger of being smothered by smog

Winter's Weight

IT'S an early winter morning. A plane homes in on the Delhi airport. The coordinates tell the pilot he is flying right over Delhi. But looking out of the window, he can't see a thing. Only a black shroud spread over a large area. What's wrong? Have his controls gone haywire? The answer comes through the ATC: "Delay landing. Visibility poor due to heavy smog."

And smog levels have been rising over Delhi, which is slowly but steadily choking the city. What is this smog made of? One seventy nine metric tonnes of sulphur dioxide; 135 metric tonnes of suspended particles; 1,063 metric tonnes of carbon monoxide; 323 metric tonnes of nitrogen oxides; 320 metric tonnes of hydrocarbons. Total: about 2,000 metric tonnes. Rising over rivers and open spaces.

A complex mixture of solid and liquid particles, the smog descends from its summer zenith to its nadir (which can be as low as 70 feet) in winter. The colder it is, the more smog descends. Explains B. Sengupta of the Central Pollution Control Board: "It's because of a phenomenon called inversion in which rising hot air suddenly runs into a cold barrier and thereby hangs the smog." Have smog levels grown in Delhi over the years? While there are no figures to suggest this, rising emission levels, which rose sharply from 870 metric tonnes in 1987 to about 2,000 metric tonnes currently, should point to that fact.

Every winter, this pall of death hangs around Delhi, making its way into people's lungs, causing asthma, bronchitis, drowsiness and nausea. Other damages include heart disorders, hypertension, intellectual impairment, even cancer. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that Delhi probably has the highest number of child asthmatics in India. Smog can also stunt the growth of foetuses, reveal studies by American, Polish and Czech scientists. In a recent report in New Scientist, Frederica Perera of New York's Columbia University revealed that Polish babies exposed to high levels of PM10s (particles less than 10 micrometres in diameter) were born with small heads and bodies. She suspects their subsequent ability to learn may suffer and they may become more prone to cancer.

Says J.N. Pande of AIIMS: "Smog is dangerous because polyaromatic hydrocarbon compounds, which are usually out of reach in summer, find their way into our lungs, riding on fog particles."

 Smog's telling impact can be summarised by one damning World Bank statistic: about 7,500 people (19 per cent of the mortality rate in the capital) are smothered by smog in Delhi alone. 

But figures of mortality and disease frequency are not ground

Also their flight schedules. In peak winters, morning flights are invariably delayed because of smog. About 20 per cent of morning, and sometimes evening, flights fail to take off on time, reveals an ATC official. Only last Monday, all 33 flights were held up owing to dense smog, some flights being delayed by up to five hours. Besides disrupting the entire take-off-landing routine, a delay for a plane about to land significantly jacks up the fuel cost.

But what causes smog? 2.2 million vehicles, four to five major thermal power stations, hundreds of smoke-spewing industries all conspire to paint this cloudscape.

And to make matters worse, nobody is doing anything about it. Notable culprits include inefficient engine design, poor fuel quality, messed up traffic management, poor vehicular maintenance, poor urban planning which allows industries to come up close to habitations, little research on alternative fuels, diesel subsidies, a status quo-ist bureaucracy and fatalistic Indians.

Smog cannot be wished away. It can only be whisked away. By a stronger will to make a better environment. 

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