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After spike in pollution, panel orders stronger curbs in Delhi as AAP, BJP engage in blame game

CAQM summoned Punjab officials Friday to 'remind them' of commitment to curb farm fires. The panel noted that slower wind speed also contributes to rising air pollution levels.

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New Delhi: The central government-appointed Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM) called an emergency meeting Friday as air quality in the National Capital Region (NCR) worsened, with PM2.5 pollution levels exceeding the 700-mark in certain areas. 

According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the 24-hour average level of pollution in Delhi was 447 Friday, which is considered “severe”. An AQI (air quality index) of over 300 is considered ‘hazardous’ and poses serious health concerns for everyone.

During the CAQM meeting, officials reviewed actions aimed at reducing farm fires in and around NCR, which are the main contributor to air pollution in the region from mid-October till mid-November. The panel summoned deputy commissioners of 22 districts in Punjab, along with the state’s chief secretary Friday, to “remind them” of their “earlier commitments to drastically reduce farm fire counts in 2022, compared to last year”.

According to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute’s Consortium for Research on Agroecosystem Monitoring and Modeling from Space (CREAMS), of the 29,413 farm fires that raged across Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan between mid-September and 3 November, 24,146 were detected in Punjab. The number of farm fires detected in Punjab this year has already surpassed last year’s figure by at least 3,500.

Add to that the onset of winter which is further exacerbating NCR’s toxic air pollution levels.

On Thursday, the CAQM noted that the deteriorating air quality was “due to unfavourable meteorological conditions with slower wind speed and rising farm fire incidents”. It enforced the strictest level of the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) which includes restricting the entry of commercial trucks and diesel vehicles into the national capital.

Despite efforts by the central and Punjab government to curb stubble burning, including through the distribution of bio-decomposers and stubble-extracting machines to farmers, there has been little or no reduction in farm fires owing to costs and impracticalities involved with alternate practices. 

After the stubble burning season passes i.e. post-mid-November, Delhi’s air quality fails to improve because of widespread biomass burning for household cooking and heating, Delhi-based think tank Council on Environment, Energy and Water (CEEW) found. 

“We stress that the interplay of meteorological conditions on Delhi’s air quality cannot be discounted, but there is a need for steeper cuts in emissions across sectors,” CEEW said in its study published in June 2021.

R.K. Agarwal, director of the CAQM sub-committee on GRAP, told Hindustan Times there was a likelihood of improvement in air quality from 6 November onwards, “owing to favourable wind speed and wind direction, which at present is predominantly north-westerly.” 

The committee will convene Sunday to discuss further action, he added. 

Meanwhile, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been blaming each other for failing to keep air pollution levels in check. Last week, the BJP accused Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal of not doing enough and demanded closure of schools.

Kejriwal responded by asking for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s resignation, accusing him of neglecting the air pollution crisis. 

On Saturday, Kejriwal announced that primary schools in Delhi would be closed and outdoor activities restricted for secondary school students on account of pollution levels. Later in the day, Environment minister Gopal Rai said 50 per cent of Delhi government staffers have been directed to work from home and that a six-member panel has been formed to oversee the implementation of curbs aimed at bringing down pollution levels.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

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