NEW DELHI :
India’s unprecedented nationwide lockdown to battle covid-19 has also opened up an unexpected opportunity—a chance for residents to open up their lungs and breathe in the cleanest air in about a decade.

With millions of vehicles that spew dust and harmful emissions off the roads, and factories shut for about three weeks, air pollution levels have plunged. According to the government-run System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), Delhi has seen a 51% reduction in PM2.5 and 49% reduction in PM10 since the lockdown.

Similar reductions were seen in Mumbai, Pune and Ahmedabad. These fine particulate matter take a heavy health toll on people’s lives, aggravating conditions like asthma.

“This is one huge experiment that nature has played out for us. So far, we had just theoretical estimates of how much each source contributes to pollution because there was no way such measures could have been taken at this scale.

But the crisis has presented a vast trove of experimental evidence and validated our observations,” said Gufrain Beig, programme coordinator at SAFAR. India’s national capital, one of the most polluted cities in the world, recorded some of the lowest Air Quality Index (AQI) in the first week of April.

While the role of changing weather conditions cannot be ruled out, the impact of lockdown was most evident in the reduction of Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) levels-largely controlled by vehicular pollution which is responsible for 40% of Delhi’s pollution.

The data showed that there has been at least 60% reduction in NOx levels in Delhi, Mumbai and Pune over the last month.

The unintended, yet huge experiment has demonstrated what could be achieved, if certain solutions are implemented. “People have now seen, what it means to have clean air and blue skies, which were otherwise shrouded by pollution. This is creating a social capital for us. Now we have to learn from this experience and build support for future action,” said Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director, research and advocacy, Centre for Science and Environment. Although the changes have come at the cost of an economic standstill, experts underscored that the situation would give India an opportunity to recalibrate its approach toward air pollution.

“For the first time, we are maximizing the potential of digital platforms in our workplaces, which have immediately cut down the need to travel. Going forward, can we bring changes in our lifestyles? Can we institutionalize some of these solutions? Perhaps, the government could push for cleaner pathways, when it provides stimulus to the economy post-pandemic and ensure adequate environmental safeguards. The challenge now is to design the programmes in such a way that a green deal is made possible,” she added.

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has already begun collecting the data for further analysis.

“The expert agencies are working on it and collecting data and we will definitely consider these observations to improve action in the near future. We are already realizing the impact of this lockdown on environment,” said Bhure Lal, chairperson of the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA).

India’s river stretches passing through major industrial towns have also recorded visual improvement.

“Though, the untreated sewage is still finding its way into the rivers, but the toxic industrial effluents have declined and the results are evident in some stretches. It is a golden opportunity for us to monitor these changes for an informed action in future,” said Manoj Mishra, Convenor of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, NGO that works on the revival of Yamuna.



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