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

The Guardian - - INTERNATIONAL - Michael Safi Delhi Seag­ulls fly­ing in the smog over the Ya­muna river; Delhi chil­dren demon­strate against pol­lu­tion; a fire­fighter tries to dampen the smoky air and, right, a Delhi pedes­trian Pho­to­graphs: Bar­croft; AFP

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”.

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