Blue skies indicate vehicles are not the only polluters
The first ever "International Day of Clean Air" for blue skies was held on September 7th, 2020. Based on a resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the aim of this day is to raise awareness amongst the public that clean air is important for health, productivity, the economy and the environment.
Mumbai has rarely seen such blue skies, good air quality and visibility of over 15 kilometres.
Coincidentally, in the week starting September 7th itself, Mumbai saw the bluest of skies, the likes of which has not been witnessed in a couple of decades or more. On 12th September, the skies and even the sea, were so blue that social media was teeming with photographs posted by the delighted and amazed residents of Mumbai. The AQI (air quality index) was also in the region of 50, which is considered to be good. With such clear air, the visibility was excellent too and in the range of about 15 to 16km. Normally, Mumbai's AQI is between 200 and 300 (visibility 1.5 to 2km), which is high and harmful for health. Last winter for almost 20 days it was over 300 (visibility less than 1km). Such elevated AQI values trigger health warnings of emergency conditions with the entire population even more likely to be affected by serious health issues.
On 12th September, the sky and Arabian Sea around Mumbai, turned into deep denim blue. (Image Source Anshu Tejuja)
Fortunately, ever since the lockdown in late March, Mumbai has been recording many blue sky days and good AQI levels, and this is one of the few beneficial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The question is, will it last? I think the coronavirus has really shaken up many of us and now far more people are aware of the dangers of messing with nature and polluting our environment. All over India, people have been seeing blue skies and enjoying clean air and are more mindful of the amount we have polluted our environment.
Given this, I think it's time a detailed study was undertaken as to what has led to such a considerable cleaning up of our environment. Obviously the complete lockdown and reduction in movement of vehicles and closure of industrial and manufacturing plants, along with the stoppage of construction activity has played a big role. The monsoons also aid in cleaning the air, but it's important to note that we started unlocking over 3 months back. Since then vehicle movement is back to being normal. Actually, Mumbai has more traffic than usual, as the majority of population is not allowed on the trains, which run on electricity and are non-polluting. Most large industries and factories are also functioning. What has still not returned to pre-lockdown levels though is the construction activity. With much of the migrant labour yet to return, the construction business is still in a state of semi, if not complete lockdown. Is this what is helping improve the AQI?
Will the sky stay blue and the air continue to be dust free?
In my opinion, vehicles have always been an easy scapegoat for pollution in India. Sure they pollute, but they are certainly not the sole generators of pollution. These days when I look out of my windows, they are cleaner than ever. The furniture inside the house, the tables, cabinets, everything stays clean longer and requires only occasional dusting. Before the lockdown, despite regular and vigorous cleaning, everything got coated in dust every second day. Now the AQI levels are good because there is less dust in the air. And there is less dust because there is less construction, or repair or demolition, work happening. I remember reading somewhere, that more pollution is generated in India by the dust kicked up by a car's tyres, than what comes out of the exhaust pipe! Yes, we need to strongly control and cut down on dust pollution. We need strict laws and enforcement for construction and contractors. For starters all construction material and debris should only be transported in covered trucks. No loose sand or cement should be kept exposed at construction sites. There should be proper dust barriers and other such measures to prevent dust from polluting the air. Hopefully the pandemic will awaken our authorities too, and get them to act on this. Or the blue skies we are seeing and enjoying now, may soon be a thing of the past.