The month of November across North India is one of its most festive as people prepare for Diwali, ”the festival of lights”. In the past few decades, the month is also turning into one of the most dangerous times of the year. It marks the start of a period of hazardous air pollution.

At this time of year, the weather, the practice of burning firecrackers and stubble burning in surrounding states combine to create conditions in which air pollution around Delhi reaches 300 times the World Health Organisation standard for healthy air.

Currently, across Delhi, air pollution monitors are maxing out at a PM2.5 reading of 999 while a sleet grey pall lies heavy over the city. BreeZo data showed that Air quality monitoring stations at Mandir Marg, Punjabi Bagh, Pusa, Rohini, Patparganj, Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Najafgarh, Sri Aurobindo Marg and Okhla Phase 2 maxed out - as air quality indexes hit the 500 mark.

The resulting smog reduced the visibility to merely 300 meters in the morning affecting traffic, an official of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) said, according to one news report.

A Universal Problem

For people living in Delhi, air pollution is no longer just a concern of the rich; the conversation has cut across the city’s socio-economic divisions. Air pollution is not invisible in the winter in Delhi – what remains invisible is the understanding of health impacts, quantification of economic costs, and ultimately the level of action needed to change the discourse.

This reflects in how Delhites are buying up air purifiers during the Diwali season. A while back nobody used to buy these, now they are flying off the shelf, a shopkeeper told a CNN reporter.

The health and economic cost of air pollution for India is high; the mortality rate is just the tip of the iceberg. Loss of productivity due to low-level illnesses, worsened mental health and impaired cognitive abilities, as well as long-term chronic illnesses compound the health and economic costs of poor air quality.

The recently released State Of Global Air Report 2019, revealed that 1.2 million Indians died due to ailments triggered by air pollution in 2017. To put it in perspective, this burden was highest in India followed by China, Indonesia, Mexico and Brazil.

Diwali is only a small part of the problem -- aside from periods of intense use like the festival, the firecrackers don't have much of an impact. Pollution in India's capital is driven by larger, more systemic problems, such as poor infrastructure and clogged roads.

Researchers in India have warned that unless authorities take action, air pollution deaths nationwide could rise to as many as 1.6 million by 2030.‍

(Header Image: AFP)