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New Delhi, India: Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s congratulatory message to the city on ‘encouraging’ air quality was both premature and misleading Image Credit: AFP

In India, despite the curb on crackers in the National Capital Region (NCR) during Diwali, predictably the air on the morning after was ‘very poor.’ A legal order in place didn’t mean much in a city that has repeatedly flouted — whether in the name of nationalism, faith or pure hara-kiri, any attempts to make Diwali clean and safe.

Production, storage, sale and bursting of firecrackers was banned by the Delhi government, an order endorsed by the Supreme Court saying, ‘Let the people breathe’ but a fine and jail term of six months for violations has hardly been a deterrent in the past, it wasn’t much different this year.

A report released barely days ago pinned Gurugram in Haryana as the most polluted city in the world, on Diwali Delhi had regained its infamous top spot.

Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s congratulatory message to the city on ‘encouraging’ air quality was both premature and misleading. Pollution was relatively lower compared to the previous year but in no way within the safe limits, AQI at 30 times the accepted levels in western countries would have sounded an emergency alarm.

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India's national clean air strategy aims to reduce emissions of particulate matter by as much as 30% by 2024 Image Credit: AFP

Unprecedented rainfall in October in the national capital region allowed for unseasonal blue skies and along with an early Diwali diluted to an extent the toxic impact of crackers.

Windy conditions also helped to disburse suspended air pollutants that in colder temperatures remain stagnant. Contrary to Kejriwal’s statement it was more about letting nature take its course.

That air pollution is not a priority in the country is unfathomable but known, how low standards have been normalised is reflected by the resurgence of air quality chatter only as winter beckons although the country barely has a handful of clean days even during the rest of the year.

Diwali triggers an already volatile environment and for 48-72 hours is the primary cause of air pollution. But the contributing factors to hazardous air are multiple.

While stubble burning- disposing the residue crop to lay the field for a fresh harvest- is often blamed as the primary cause of air pollution, vehicular emissions, construction and industrial pollution are equally if not bigger factors but don’t get the same attention as they aren’t convenient both for the public and the political class.

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Due to weak transport-level winds, the share of stubble burning in the national capital's rising air pollution remained up to five per cent until Sunday Image Credit: AFP

But that is not to say, farm fires are not hazardous and in Delhi, Punjab and Haryana they will only increase as winter sets in. With a government in both Punjab and Delhi Kejriwal and AAP can no longer hide behind the blame game, unfortunately while the focus remains on NCR, Punjab quietly suffers.

Stubble burning by the farmers is causing health issues in a population where the air was already stinging before Diwali. Yet year after year, the issue remains unresolved with no real political will to bring a change either through technology or policy.

Earlier this year fire at one of Delhi’s biggest landfills in the city’s outskirts of Ghazipur raged for days releasing poison into the air but despite all three landfills in the city breaching capacity, there doesn’t seem to be a plan of action for the 10,000 tonnes of waste that Delhi produces daily.

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Closing schools or odd-even days are for the privileged, India’s homeless including children and their plight and lungs are both ignored. They are not a vote-bank. Smog towers sound pretentious when toxic air kills a child every three minutes in the country as per Global Burden of Disease report in 2017.

Another report says that a fifth of neonatal deaths are caused by unhealthy air. Doctors have been flagging the increase in asthma and respiratory issues among children especially in North India yet no lessons are learnt when in states like Gujarat a two-hour window is given for a free for all celebration with crackers.

There is also the matter of livelihood. 150,000 people were left jobless in Tamil Nadu due to the cracker ban and they need rehabilitation. But all this is part of policymaking that seems to elude a country where more time is spent debating a ball in a cricket match.

Kejriwal applauded Delhi citizens but it is also the people who fail every Diwali and onwards. It is our right to breathe but we have to decide for ourselves if we want clean air. As for the politicians, solutions are obfuscated in the name of blame game.

Both the centre and state governments have collectively betrayed its people, when eight out of ten polluted cities globally are from India, it takes a special arrogance to not try and solve the crisis. The face masks are no longer just about the pandemic.

Lancet says 1.6 million Indians died of poor air quality in 2019 and for those with compromised Covid immunity, this winter already sounds ominous. Every year we can see it coming and like clockwork it does.