Delhi's smog-fight­ing he­li­copters can't fly – be­cause of smog

The Guardian Australia - - World News - Michael Safi in Delhi

An am­bi­tious plan to use he­li­copters to fight Delhi’s air pol­lu­tion has been grounded be­cause the air­craft can­not op­er­ate in the thick smog, un­der­scor­ing grow­ing frus­tra­tion at au­thor­i­ties’ in­abil­ity to ad­dress the toxic haze en­gulf­ing the city.

Ac­cu­sa­tions that Naren­dra Modi’s gov­ern­ment is fail­ing to take the cri­sis se­ri­ously were fur­ther fu­elled on Tues­day when the en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter, Harsh Vard­han, urged res­i­dents to re­main calm, say­ing only “rou­tine pre­cau­tions” were needed, even though air qual­ity lev­els re­main “se­vere”.

The city au­thor­i­ties had en­gaged a state-owned he­li­copter com­pany to spray wa­ter over Delhi in the hope of set­tling the thick haze of pol­lu­tants. But on Mon­day ad­min­is­tra­tors were told they would be un­able to help dis­si­pate the smog un­til the smog it­self had cleared.

“Right now, with the pre­vail­ing smog, it is not pos­si­ble for the he­li­copters to carry out op­er­a­tions,” the chair­man and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the com­pany, BP Sharma, told the In­dian Ex­press. “We have com­mu­ni­cated the same to the Delhi gov­ern­ment. There was a meet­ing re­gard­ing this on Mon­day.”

The other hitch is that many parts of Delhi – par­tic­u­larly its south­ern quar­ters where par­lia­ment, the pres­i­dency and the prime min­is­ter are all based – are within a strictly po­liced no-fly zone.

A spokesman for the city gov­ern­ment could not be reached but told the In­dian Ex­press: “There are a few is­sues and these will be worked out … All stake­hold­ers are be­ing con­sulted.”

A 2015 study found that 52% of the par­tic­u­late mat­ter in the city’s air was from dust kicked up by the tens of thou­sands of cars on its roads. Un­cov­ered sand and soil from con­struc­tion sites also con­trib­ute to the chok­ing at­mos­phere.

In the last week, mas­sive crop burn­ing in neigh­bour­ing states and slow winds have also been a fac­tor in send­ing air pol­lu­tion lev­els in parts of north In­dia to more than 30 times the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion stan­dards for daily ex­po­sure.

Doc­tors have de­clared a pub­lic health emer­gency in Delhi, but Vard­han was blasé, con­trast­ing the pol­lu­tion to the 1984 gas leak in Bhopal that killed at least 25,000 peo­ple.

Bhopal, he ar­gued was “an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion where you have to panic and you have to see what you have to do”, he said in an in­ter­view with CNN-18 news.

“I’m not say­ing we shouldn’t do any­thing about it [the Delhi smog], ev­ery­one has to re­spond to what he is sup­posed to do. But there is no need to spread panic among the peo­ple.”

Pub­lic pres­sure has cen­tred on the city’s chief min­is­ter, Arvind Ke­jri­wal, a pop­ulist for­mer bu­reau­crat and en­gi­neer. His pro­posal to ra­tion traf­fic ac­cord­ing to the last digit of num­ber plates – odd num­bers one day, evens the other – has been blocked by judges since Fri­day.

Ke­jri­wal wants to main­tain a long list of ex­emp­tions to the odd-even rule, in­clud­ing sin­gle women, cars trans­port­ing chil­dren and two-wheel­ers. Even if im­ple­mented, stud­ies of the last time Delhi at­tempted the mea­sure have found its im­pact was “abysmally small”.

The sprin­kling he­li­copter pol­icy was also rub­bished by ex­perts who said it would make no dif­fer­ence.

Though Delhi gets the most at­ten­tion, the haze has set­tled across the en­tire north In­dian plain, in­clud­ing parts of Pak­istan. A last­ing so­lu­tion would re­quire a na­tion­ally co­or­di­nated re­sponse across state and in­ter­na­tional bor­ders.

A study on Mon­day found the air qual­ity in Varanasi, in Modi’s home con­stituency, had even worse air than Delhi. The In­dian prime min­is­ter is yet to com­ment on the cri­sis.

Po­lash Mukher­jee, an air pol­lu­tion re­searcher from the Del­hibased Cen­tre for Science and En­vi­ron­ment, said there was a “sense of de­spon­dency” among the city’s res­i­dents, who were in­creas­ingly aware of the dan­gers as­so­ci­ated with breath­ing dense par­tic­u­late mat­ter.

“They know it’s se­vere, and they know some­thing should be done about it, but no one seems to be do­ing any­thing,” he said.

The head of the All-In­dia Par­ents As­so­ci­a­tion, Ashok Agrawal, said the gov­ern­ment was “not sin­cere” about the is­sue. “It hap­pened last year,” he said. “They could have taken steps so that it didn’t hap­pen again, or so the den­sity was lower.

“But they have done noth­ing to ad­dress the prob­lem and it is a health emer­gency.”

With the city gov­ern­ment un­able to find the right steps, and the cen­tral one re­luc­tant to take any, Delhi res­i­dents have been left to rely on the heav­ens. Driz­zle has been pre­dicted for Wed­nes­day, when fore­cast­ers say the city’s air will “re­cover” – al­beit to lev­els still clas­si­fied as “very poor”.

A man runs across an ex­press­way cloaked in smog near Delhi. Pho­to­graph: Cathal Mc­naughton/Reuters

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