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Lockdown has helped us breathe better- But can we sustain it?

Government data shows pollution drop nationwide with cities recording ‘good’ air quality increasing five fold amid lockdown. It has given us a rare glimpse into the low-carbon future and a possible push towards sustainable growth.

A few months back I came across an interesting discussion on social media on a possible solution to control the drastic drop in air quality during the Diwali season every year. A friend randomly suggested — “What if, we had a ‘curfew’ organized and a complete ban on inflammables for the day?”. The idea of an enforced restriction seemed ridiculous at the time and was quickly dismissed. But here we are, amidst a lockdown with an effort to save the world from this deadly pandemic.

The Transformation

On the brighter side of things, we are breathing clean and fresh air, with nature rejoicing the minimal human intervention. Everyday, we see images of new migratory birds flocking in nearby lakes with the blue sky perfectly complementing their delight.

Less than six months ago, Delhi was gasping for breath. Authorities said air quality had reached “unbearable levels”. Schools were shut, flights were diverted, and people were asked to wear masks, avoid polluted areas and keep doors and windows closed. But lockdown has really changed the scene of air quality in the capitol.

Consider the example of Anand Vihar area in Delhi, which remains among the hotspots of air-pollution throughout the year.

Source: Central Pollution Control Board

  • Trends of PM2.5 which is a standard particulate pollutant has been improving since past two months- The pollutant has surprisingly maintained in the “good” region last month compared to previous years data.

  • When we compare the AQI November last year — the region had recorded 447 then as compared to 32 in April.

  • As many as 39 cities have recorded “good” air quality and 51 cities have recorded “satisfactory” air quality in the past two months, the report by Central Pollution Control Board(CPCB) stated.

The Driving Factor

With industrial activities coming to a complete halt and the buzzing traffic of cities silenced by the lockdown, we have eliminated the two key contributors of pollutants. Let’s try to analyze what’s happening:

  • Lesser no. of on-road vehicles means lesser NOx-The key factor that is triggering the decline is the number of on-road vehicles, which contributes to a 51% reduction in NOx levels and a 32% reduction in carbon monoxide levels.

  • Reduction in particulate emission- PM2.5 levels reduced by about 35–40%. The breakup of industries contributed to this reduction is by 10%, vehicles 10–15% and dust another 10–15%, the organisation calculated.(Source: Central Pollution Control Board)

What the future beholds

In a sense, we are conducting the largest ever global air pollution experiment. Over a relatively short period of time, we’re turning off major air pollutant sources in industry and transport. The obvious questions are -

  • Why isn’t the government proactively taking measures to control the air quality situation and why is this only a by-product of a pandemic caused lockdown?

  • As citizens, does this data affect our lives or will everything go back to normalcy, including the air-quality trends getting back to alarming levels as soon as the lockdown ends?

“It is clear by now that If we threaten nature, nature will hit back, and in this battle, we are sure to lose. We need to change our ways. Elites around the world, for their and our selfish comforts, have exploited nature. We, the real predators, are a threat to nature’s ways. Coronavirus is yet another warning for us to mend our ways. If not, the road to our extinction is inevitable.”- says Kapil Cibal, a senior congress leader and former Union Minister.

In this aspect, we stand at a crossroad — where one leads us back to the situation of continuous environmental exploitation and the other to the bright future via sustainable development. The pandemic could show us how the future might look with less air pollution, or it may just indicate the scale of the challenge ahead.

We leave it upon our readers to ponder — should we simply choose livelihoods over lives or is there an alternate solution to this problem?

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