Truth about Diwali Pollution

For quite sometime we have been hearing of Green Diwali, No Cracker campaigns in schools, colleges sponsored mostly by non governmental associations. It was all good as long it was voluntary. People rightly objected to high decibel levels or problems that arose due to high concentrations of cracker smoke. Many societies started curbing celebrations within a particular time and place and that was being appreciated. Yet a PIL in the Supreme Court of India for an outright ban and the subsequent diktat regarding banning of sale of fire crackers upset a large section of society and if data shows rightly. We heard bytes on TV studios that made it sound that the sole cause of pollution was that night of Diwali in remembrance of Ram returning to Ayodhya. So was perception and not data that led to the drastic ban?

I asked many children in top schools what was the leading cause of pollution in a city like Delhi and most gave me Diwali Crackers as an answer. So certainly the perception seems warped as data shows Diwali is hardly a major cause of pollution in the city. The bigger causes persist without much focus and endless debates on Diwali pollution serve little purpose to solve the the problem. So let us see what are the major causes of pollution in a city like Delhi that hardly find time in main stream media studios for discussion and rational debate.

In reality the main causes of pollution that cause severe deterioration of PM (Particulate Matter) can be very broadly listed as follows:

  1. Burning of Garbage dumps: Natural or artificial. There are few dumps all over Delhi where garbage is just dumped. The non segregated garbage includes everything you can imagine, toxic plastics, food, chemical, industrial waste. This is being dumped for decades. A city like Delhi produces millions of tons of garbage every year and the garbage mounds have become mountains. The garbage produces methane and combusts spontaneously. Powered by winds particulate matter mostly toxic floats to surrounding areas causing huge deterioration of air quality. Any random day PM figures will show high levels around these dumps. Ghazipur dump area The figures here are for Nov 9th a good 10 days post Diwali. The area around garbage dumps show almost double the PM levels than areas around. For guidance remember 100 is the benchmark alarm by Indian standards. 300+ are extremely high levels. World class cities usually have 20-40 PM levels!
  2. Vehicular traffic: Delhi has to bear the burden of very heavy vehicular traffic. Trucks hardly follow any pollution norms. Most trucks are allowed post 9 in the evening. Along the two major routes they take pollution levels remain extremely high all year round. Solutions are to create bypasses and the Easters and Western bypass when ready will make a significant impact. High levels are seen areas where flow of traffic is jamming up.
  3. Construction dust: A large many projects in and around the capital throw up huge quantities of particulate matter that remain suspended in the air. This is a very significant contributor to heavy smog and PM levels.
  4. Thermal Power plants: A number of them in and around Delhi contribute about 11 GW of power but also a significant about of Sulfur oxides and NOx as secondary particulates in the atmosphere. An excerpt from the IIT Kanpur study is shown:Pollution ACT 8

There ate other significant factors that need expert level investigations, but the three above would possibly be accounting for 90% or more of the PM levels that we see. On the other hand Diwali pollution is hardly a blimp. Check this for 2016 for example. Two major locations show PM levels actually went down post Diwali day!

Diwali pollution data

Pollution ACT 7 Pollution ACT 6

Above pics from independently collected data depict further how many pollution peaks occur well before Diwali.

Pollution ACT 1

Pollution ACT 2

According to the study by IIT Kanpur major sources of pollution have been identified and tabled as above. A more concise screenshot is available here, conspicuous being Diwali does not figure:

Pollution ACT 3

The campaign against Diwali crackers thus is not based much on facts, but lies possibly in motivated agenda. Schools have long been fed with “Say no to Pollution, No Crackers” This has created an adamant mindset that pollution problems are due to Diwali, Since Diwali falls at the beginning of the smog season, it gets an unusual amount of blame. Some of this is acknowledged by the hon. Court in its judgement for example:

Pollution ACT5

Pollution ACT 4

So what possibly could be the rational solutions to this issue now:

The solutions to letting people enjoy traditional Diwali obviously lie not in outright bans but:

  1. Controlling or substituting Perchlorates in the chemicals and associated heavy metals.
  2. Making ‘Green’ crackers, auditing and enforcing decibel level rules.
  3. Encouraging only community based bursting of crackers.
  4. Local monitoring of pollution levels.
  5. Acknowledging high levels of pollution while burning crackers and in vicinity, keeping elderly and children well protected.
  6. Safety precautions and responsibility in purchasing only crackers that confirm to a given set of standards and operating only in allowed environments.

The idea should have been enjoy a Green Diwali but be ready to pay more for more environmentally friendly chemicals used in crackers. But that neither was attempted nor thought of. Truth and Data will eventually show Diwali is hardly a contributor to overall pollution problems prevalent in India or the NCR region. But by then lot of legitimate questions on why so much rigidity in some judgements coming out will be raised.

Credits and References: 

Hariprasad N. @pranasutra

Ashish Naredi @naredi

Note: Will request people with some time to also go through the excellent IIT Kanpur report on Delhi pollution above in pdf.