Air pollution on Diwali declined in Delhi this year relative to the last four years due to the Delhi government’s extensive preventive measures, including a mega laser show. From an average PM2.5 level of 958 in 2016 to 289 in 2019, Delhi witnessed a 70 per cent decline in the four-year period. However, 1,276 stubble-burning incidents, mostly in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, were recorded a day before Diwali. Alas, many areas of Delhi recorded an Air Quality Index of 999 on the night of Diwali. As a result, curative measures to reduce the risk of air pollution are required, and the Delhi government is undertaking one such measure through the distribution of 50 lakh masks among school students.
Prevention has always been, and continues to remain, the best cure. Cognisant of this, the Delhi government undertook various steps in the last four years, including making diesel generator sets redundant through the provision of 24×7 electricity, closure of coal-based power plants (thereby becoming a model state), controlling vehicular pollution through the Odd-Even Scheme, and banning a large number of dirty fuels. The Supreme Court’s ban on conventional firecrackers in 2018 added to the drive for clean air. Nonetheless, stubble burning in the neighbouring states has negated somewhat the effectiveness of our preventive initiatives.
While we appeal to our neighbouring states to urgently undertake measures to control stubble burning — through provision of alternate machinery and equipment — we are also going to ensure that the health of our citizens is not affected by the actions of a few. As a result, the Delhi government is distributing N95 masks to the students of government as well as private schools in Delhi.
While simple paper masks may not be as useful, global studies have proved the effectiveness of N95 masks. Two studies in China showed that blood pressure was lower amongst those participants who wore N95 masks and walked in the centre of Beijing, than those who did not wear the masks. This finding was true for both healthy participants as well as those with heart diseases. Recently, as a recommendation for protection against the compromised air quality in California (due to the wildfires), experts suggested a respirator mask — such as an N95 facemask, which is designed to filter out 95 per cent of airborne particles. In line with these recommendations and findings, the Delhi government is distributing N95 masks as well.
In previous years, it was noted that face masks were not a successful solution to the air pollution problem in Delhi because the most effective N95 and N99 masks were unaffordable for lower-income groups. There was a lack of awareness and access to good quality masks. Research conducted at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago in India (EPIC India) last year showed that even at a 50 per cent discount, less than one in 10 residents of Delhi stated that they will purchase a mask.
The Delhi government has consistently stressed and worked on increasing provisions for free and quality healthcare. Our constant efforts to reduce the bottlenecks related to the affordability and availability of masks and our endeavours to promote awareness among students should be seen in that light. We will encourage the students, who receive the masks, to act as change agents and raise awareness about the types, use and health benefits of masks.
As we continue to work towards reducing air pollution in Delhi and urge our neighbouring states to cooperate in this endeavour, it is important that individuals are provided the necessary healthcare provisions. Distribution of the masks is a testament to this imperative.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 23, 2019 under the title ‘With a mask and shield’. The writer is health minister of Delhi.