Minister’s Bhopal comment fans anger over toxic air crisis in Delhi
Pollution in north India not ‘emergency situation’ Smog-busting helicopter plan grounded by – smog
Accusations of the Indian government failing to take the country’s air pollution crisis seriously were fanned yesterday when the environment minister urged residents in Delhi to remain calm, saying only routine precautions were needed despite levels remaining “severe”.
In the last week, massive crop burning in neighbouring states and windless days have also been a factor in air pollution in parts of northern India being more than 30 times the daily exposure levels recommended by the World Health Organization.
Doctors have declared a public health emergency in Delhi with a toxic haze engulfing the city. But the environment minister, Harsh Vardhan, appeared blase yesterday, contrasting the pollution to the 1984 gas leak in Bhopal that killed at least 25,000 people.
Bhopal was “an emergency situation where you have to panic and you have to see what you have to do”, he told CNN News18. “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.”
The city authorities had engaged a state-owned helicopter firm to spray water over Delhi in the hope of settling the thick haze of pollutants. But on Monday administrators were told that the smog would have to clear first.
“With the prevailing smog it is not possible for the helicopters to carry out operations,” BP Sharma, the head of the firm, told the Indian Express. “We have communicated the same to the Delhi government.”
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 told the Indian Express: “There are a few issues and these will be worked out … All stakeholders are being consulted.”
A study in 2015 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.
Public pressure has centred on Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal. His proposal to alternate traffic according to 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 rule, including single women and two-wheeled vehicles. Even if implemented, studies of the last time Delhi attempted the measure have found its impact was “abysmally small”.
Sprinkling water from helicopters 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 that Varanasi, the constituency of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, had even worse air than Delhi. Modi is yet to comment on the crisis.
Polash Mukherjee, an air pollution researcher from the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, said there was a sense of despondency among Delhi’s residents, who were increasingly aware of the dangers associated with breathing in 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 said the government was “not sincere” about the issue. “It happened last year,” Ashok Agarwal added. “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 today, when forecasters say the city’s air will recover – albeit to levels still classified as “very poor”.