Coronavirus: as lockdown continues, air quality across India improves

Just a week into lockdown, India is experiencing cleaner air

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Hundreds of millions of Indians are breathing cleaner air courtesy of an nationwide three-week coronavirus lockdown that has curbed pollution levels “significantly” in one of the most polluted countries on earth.

India has been grappling with a chronic rise in pollution levels over the last decade. New Delhi, one of the world’s most polluted capital cities, is often referred to as a “gas chamber” for its toxic air quality.

But Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s March 24 decree to completely shutdown the country of 1.3 billion people to stop the spread of coronavirus has temporarily fixed its dirty air crisis and experts hope the chance remedy will inspire future government policies to tackle the problem.

India has witnessed astounding improvement in the air quality within a week of the lockdown with authorities saying 118 large and small cities had been given Air Quality Index ratings of 'good' and 'satisfactory' and are at least four times cleaner than average pollution levels – including the world’s most polluted city of Kanpur. During the winter months, the city usually rates 'severe' - the worst rating.

Satellite imaginary from India’s air pollution monitoring agencies backed up the figures, showing  a clean atmosphere across the country.

“The nationwide lockdown since March 24 have resulted in significant improvement in air quality in the country,” India’s Central Pollution Control Board said this week.

Experts say strong winds and rain in the northern region of the country also helped clean the air but credit the lockdown for the dramatic change in air quality that they expect will continue until April 15 when the restrictions end.

"Weather activities over many parts of the country combined with all the restrictions are helping an improvement of the air quality," Mahesh Palawat, Vice President of Skymet, a private weather forecaster, told The National.

The world’s largest lockdown has halted the use of some 250 million vehicles, shuttered factories and banned construction activity that experts say remains the main source of harmful fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide.

PM 2.5 is considered particularly dangerous as it can lodge deep into the lungs and cause respiratory and cardiac risks.

Police personnel along with members of National Human Rights and Crime Control Organization pose for photographs while gesturing behind a slogan 'Stay Home Stay Safe' written on the road at the Golden Gate (background) during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Amritsar on April 4, 2020.  / AFP / NARINDER NANU

Mr Palawat said the lockdown has helped the air become 30 per cent cleaner, adding he expected the pollution levels to oscillate between the “good or satisfactory” categories until the end of lockdown.

“With improved air quality in the long run, the impact would be far-reaching. We expect the ozone layer will also start repairing in a longer run if the lockdown continues for a few months across the world,” Mr Palawat said.

The northern Indian city of Kanpur topped a 2018 WHO air quality report of the world's most polluted cities, prompting the government to roll out a national plan to combat poor air quality.

The National Clean Air Programme launched last year and aimed to reduce PM 2.5 and PM 10 levels by 2024. The programme is in its early stages and has not brought any tangible result so far.

New Delhi, usually shrouded in a grey or yellowish haze, witnessed azure skies and relief for its 22 million residents who normally gasp for fresh air as the Air Quality Index rating reached 42 over the weekend - 'good' by AQI standards and the lowest in nine years.. The average in 2019 was 195 for the city, which the AQI defines as “moderate”.

"I haven't seen such a pristine sky since last Diwali (October). Even though we may be in for a long haul with Covid-19, the fact that it has had a tremendous positive impact on the environment, with cleaner skies, starry nights, and fresher air, one almost takes it as a silver lining," Neha Jindal, a Delhi resident told The National.

Experts say the country has ignored the air pollution crisis for long and believe that the unintended results of the lockdown should help the government plan future strategies to mitigate the pollution that is emerging as a major public health challenge.

"Now that everything is closed, we are getting a never-before opportunity to collect rare data about the Delhi's baseline pollution that will help in planning future strategies to mitigate air pollution issue," MP George, a scientist with Delhi's Pollution Control Board told The National.

India has the highest rates of respiratory disease in the world.

A research paper published in British medical journal The Lancet said 1.24 million deaths in India in 2017 were caused by air pollution.

But many experts fear that the brief relief may actually spell worries for the country’s future air quality due to increased economic activity once the restrictions are lifted.

“Because of the shutdown of industries, people will try to compensate up the loss of their business and there will be an increase in production leading to a jump in the pollution levels,” Gufran Beg, scientist at government-run System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research, told The National.