Delhi bans firecrackers ahead of annual pollution spike around Diwali

Delhi's 13-million-plus vehicles and factories spew emissions that contribute to the city's smog. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI – Those letting off firecrackers in New Delhi this Diwali will be fined 200 rupees (S$3.44) and could be jailed for up to six months, according to latest anti-pollution measures announced by the Indian capital territory on Wednesday.

The move is part of a wider ban on firecrackers, including their storage and sale, ahead of the festival next Monday that usually coincides with an annual spike in air pollution during winter, when low wind speeds trap pollutants in the lower atmosphere.

Smoke from firecrackers contributes significantly to Delhi’s toxic air, which on Friday ranked “poor” on the air quality index that measures levels of eight main pollutants.

Emissions from the city’s 13-million-plus vehicles and from factories add to this toxic cocktail. This worsens further as farmers in neighbouring states burn paddy stubble to clear their fields for the next sowing season.

A similar ban on crackers was imposed last year but it was flouted widely. After their acrid smoke engulfed the city and its adjoining areas on Diwali evening on Nov 4, Delhi’s air quality index reached the “severe” zone the next day – the worst air quality level the city had seen the day after the festival since monitoring began in 2015.

The onset of this year’s winter has been the cleanest since 2018 due to an extended rainy season in October that has since ended.

Pollution levels have been climbing in recent days, with the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) issuing an “early winter pollution alert” on Thursday, indicating that airborne levels of particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5) are on the rise.

Their levels on Sunday were at more than six times what the World Health Organisation recommends for a 24-hour average exposure, and this is expected to further worsen with more smoke drifting in from farm fires in neighbouring states.

Delhi’s air quality is predicted to deteriorate to “very poor” levels on Saturday.

While the last three winters in Delhi have shown about a 20 per cent improvement in seasonal air quality compared with 2015-18, progress has stagnated since the pandemic.

Already, 3,491 farm fire cases were detected in five states – Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh – and in Delhi between Sept 15 and Oct 19.

While these numbers are low compared with the 10,969 farm fires during the same period in 2020, agricultural experts believe the rainy season may have delayed post-harvest field-clearing fires.

A farmer walks past burning straw stubble in a paddy field on the outskirts of Amritsar on Oct 20, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

CSE warned that pollution levels will “worsen dramatically” if current trends continue, and that the “conditions are ripe” for a severe smog episode to start from Diwali night. 

The Commission of Air Quality Management on Wednesday rolled out measures to curb air pollution across the national capital region.

This includes a ban on the use of diesel power generators, as well as on using coal and firewood for cooking at commercial establishments.

A firefighter dressed as a cartoon character speaking to children at a school in Chennai during a fire safety awareness campaign on the safe usage of firecrackers. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Delhi has been unsuccessful in reducing its overall long-term pollution substantially to meet clean air standards, resulting in winter pollution spikes, said Ms Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director for research and advocacy at CSE.

“The only way you can eliminate smog episodes during winter is to have sustained, long-term pollution control efforts that are multi-sector, multi-jurisdiction and implemented in a sustained way,” she added.

Delhi, Ms Chowdhury noted, has undertaken several efforts to reduce pollution, such as shutting down its coal-fired power plants, switching its fleet of buses and other commercial vehicles to compressed natural gas and forcing industries to adopt cleaner fuels such as piped natural gas.  

But a continuing surge in private vehicle ownership, waste burning and use of solid fuels for cooking by the poor are some persistent challenges, she added.

“Delhi still needs to reduce its annual PM2.5 levels by another 60 per cent to be able to meet clean air standards. That is the challenge,” she said.

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