A view of the Dhauldhar mountains | Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A view of the Dhauldhar mountains | Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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New Delhi: Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown to halt the spread of coronavirus on 24 March, many cities have noted a sharp drop in air pollution levels. The lockdown has meant no air traffic, trains, factory work, coal-burning power plants or traffic on the roads.

The effect of the reduction in toxic emissions is especially apparent in parts of North India where air pollution is a major issue. New Delhi recorded its AQI (Air Quality Index) at 95 last week, which was a big reduction from its monthly average of 161. For the first time in the past several years, the air quality in Punjab has improved drastically and most of its cities fall in the ‘green zone’ now.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board, AQI is termed to be in the ‘dark green zone’ if it is between 0-50 and sees no impact on the environment, and anything between 51 and 100 is placed in the ‘light green zone’.

The 2019 World Air Quality Report, published in February 2020, stated that India was home to 14 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, but that number has now dropped to just two as on 7 April.

Himachal’s Dhauladhar visible from Punjab

Last week, people in Punjab’s Jalandhar noticed that they could see the Dhauladhar mountain range from their homes again, for the first time in decades. The Dhauladhar range is part of the Himalayan chain of mountains in Himachal Pradesh.

The Dhauladhar chain’s elevation ranges from 3,500 m to 6,000 m across Himachal. It curves towards Mandi from the banks of the Beas river in Kullu. The range also passes through Barabhangal towards the north and joins the Pir Panjal range and into Chamba.

Many Twitter users living in Jalandhar were stunned to see the Himalayas from their homes and took to the microblogging site to share pictures of the sight, marvelling at the impact of a few days of clean air.

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Some users claimed that they could see Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh from Zirakpur, Punjab, while others pointed out that the Himalayas are also visible from Pathankot, Punjab.

Others called this the ‘lockdown effect’ and compared it to “clear Yamuna” in Delhi.

While the social media claims of blue Yamuna waters were debunked by some, a Delhi Jal Board report said a survey of the river water did find improvement in its quality.

“After testing the water of Yamuna river at many places in Delhi, we have come to know that the quality of water of Yamuna river has improved,” a report in India Today quoted Raghav Chadha, vice-chairman of the Delhi Jal Board, as saying.

According to Chadha, the factors that helped include closures of industries in Delhi and around and clean and ammonia-free water flowing from Haryana.

The Yamuna Monitoring Committee appointed by the National Green Tribunal had also recently asked the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the Delhi Pollution Control Committee to assess the impact of the lockdown on the Yamuna and submit the findings, according to a PTI report.

“We have collected the samples. Report will be submitted in one week. We will know only then whether the quality of Yamuna river water has actually improved or not,” the report quoted a senior CPCB official as saying.

Short-term advantage of lockdown

The lockdown isn’t only effective in terms of keeping people at home and enforcing social distancing, which is crucial to flattening the curve. The resulting clean air could also help to fight the pandemic simply because it improves people’s respiratory health, especially important in the case of this particular virus.

The World Health Organization states that polluted air kills 7 million annually because of acute respiratory problems. This year, though, Delhi-based pulmonologist Pankaj Sayal said, he has received less than half the number of calls from patients with respiratory problems than he has during this season previously.

But he acknowledged that a lockdown is obviously not a long-term solution to toxic air quality.

Jyoti Pande Lavakare, co-founder of the Indian environmental organization Care For Air, agreed, saying “slowing down the economy to such a degree isn’t the ideal way of bringing down air pollution but at least it proves that it can be done, if the intention is there.” She added, “If the economic restart isn’t done mindfully, pollution will come roaring back as industries try and catch up.”

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