A large fraction of Delhi residents showed complete disregard for their own health, the well-being of their family members, and that of other people as the sound of firecrackers reverberated in the air on Diwali night. And though all of the city was converted into a gas chamber by the early hours on Monday, some places bore the brunt more than others.
Take, for instance, Anand Vihar in east Delhi.
A known pollution hot spot in Delhi, this area was the Capital’s most polluted location on Sunday night. But the usual suspects — vehicular emission, industrial affluents and road dust — were not at fault this time. A combination of relentless bursting of firecrackers in the vicinity, coupled with police inaction in enforcing a ban on the sale and use of fireworks, pushed the hourly PM 2.5 concentration at Anand Vihar to 1,985 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) at midnight — a whopping 33 times the national safe standard of 60 µg/m3, and 132 times the safe-limit of 15 µg/m3 given by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
“Firecrackers were burst at an unimaginable scale this year, so much so that it became impossible to step out and light diyas towards the evening. There was so much smoke. I had watery eyes and had to use a handkerchief to cover my nose and mouth. Even then, I couldn’t stay out for too long,” said Vinod Kumar, 56, RWA president, DDA Flats Anand Vihar.
Kumar said that people were unwilling to complain about those flouting the cracker ban because they knew police would do little based on the experience last year, when the ban was flouted in a similar manner. “Also, since it is a major festival, people are wary of complaining about others. especially since the festival involves children,” he said.
Data from Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) monitors showed that Anand Vihar recorded the highest hourly PM 2.5 concentration in Delhi on Diwali night, followed by Patparganj — another east Delhi neighbourhood, where the PM 2.5 concentration hit 1,856 µg/m3 at 1am on Monday. And North Delhi’s Jahangirpuri wasn’t too far behind, with the PM 2.5 concentration there touching 1,792 µg/m3 at 11 pm on Sunday.
PM2.5 levels rise sharply whenever pollution is caused by a combustion source, drawing a direct link between the sharp spikes and the use of firecrackers. HT reported on Sunday that while all firecrackers significantly boost PM2.5 levels, the worst offenders are snake tablets, Ladis and fireworks, which lead to PM2.5 shooting up to by 64,500, 38,450 and 28,950 micrograms per cubic metre for short durations in their immediate vicinity.
Ashok Mahajan, a 60-year-old resident of IP extension in Patparganj said even though firecrackers were being heard from 6 pm onwards, the intensity increased considerably post 9pm. “Between 9 pm and midnight, firecrackers simply did not stop and some could still be heard till 1-2 am. I had to take a sleeping pill at night, but that did little to help me as I was coughing constantly,” he said.
A comparison with last year’s hourly PM 2.5 readings from across Delhi on Diwali night painted a grim picture — in 2022, the hourly PM 2.5 concentration peaked at 1,042 µg/m3 in Okhla in southeast Delhi. This year, at least 11 continuous ambient air quality monitoring stations (CAAQMS) in Delhi recorded PM 2.5 levels over the 1,000 µg/m3 mark. Apart from Anand Vihar, Patparganj and Jahangirpuri, these were Nehru Nagar (1785 µg/m3), Okhla Phase-2 (1619 µg/m3), JLN stadium (1,423 µg/m3), Dwarka’s sector 6 (1,396 µg/m3), RK Puram (1,345 µg/m3), Ashok Vihar (1,323 µg/m3), Punjabi Bagh (1,111 µg/m3) and Rohini (1,089 µg/m3).
PM 2.5 particles are so small that they can travel deep into the respiratory tract, even reaching the lungs and cause short-term health effects such as eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, and shortness of breath. In the long-term, they can cause respiratory diseases and even cancer.
At the other end of the spectrum, those living in Najafgarh fared relatively well as the peak hourly PM 2.5 concentration hit 324 µg/m3 — at 11 am on Monday, hours after crackers are usually burst. Narela in north Delhi recorded a peak of 421 µg/m3 PM 2.5 at 9am on Monday, followed by Karni Singh shooting range station in Tughalakabad, where a peak of 431 µg/m3 was recorded at 3am on Monday. However, even these levels are five-seven times the safe limit prescribed by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).
In all, according to DPCC’s analysis, 21 out of its 24 stations saw a higher peak PM 2.5 concentration this year as compared to last Diwali. “All 24 stations observed an increment in the concentration of PM2.5 in 2023 with respect to 2022, except Sri Aurobindo Marg, Vivek Vihar, and the Karni Singh Shooting range station,” an official said, asking not to be named.
Experts rued the fact that the use of fireworks had taken Delhi back into a pollution crisis.
“We saw a washout effect over Delhi just a few days ago when rain and the subsequently strong winds led to a significant drop in the background emissions. So, a spike in pollution — and to such alarming levels — on Diwali day is a clear indication that firecrackers were burst on a large-scale at these locations,” said Sunil Dahiya, analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA).
He also said that a majority of these locations are also a part of the list of Delhi’s 13 pollution hot spots. “There are local sources of pollution at most of these locations which combined with firecracker emission. For the dispersal of these levels of pollutants, we will again require strong winds or rain,” he said.