Delhi-National Capital Region recording 'severe' air pollution levels has once again reignited the debate on the issue that grips the country every year post Diwali.

Rahul Malik, 27 started coughing a day after Diwali, his condition has remained the same days later. "It happens to me every time after Diwali. I woke up next with a terrible cold and cough," he said.

While some areas in Delhi were in the 'severe' category, NCR regions like Noida were not far behind. "It has become a year-round phenomenon now," said Malik, who is a software engineer in a Delhi based organisation.

While there are many reasons for the bad air condition in Delhi-NCR, bursting of crackers triggers the onset of a pollution that goes throughout winters.

Like last year, the Supreme Court banned the use of firecrackers in Delhi-NCR, this year the apex court ordered restricting the bursting of firecrackers to two hours (8 pm to 10 pm) and mandated 'green crackers'. However, all the measures were ineffective.

In fact, the order was flouted at will across cities, with crackers being burst through the day and well into the night, throwing both air and noise pollution norms to the wind. Neither was the 'green cracker' label strictly adhered to.

Even in Delhi, where burning of crackers is punishable with a jail term and fine, the law was violated with impunity.

Although reports stating that Delhi experienced its cleanest day after Diwali in seven years, the situation escalated badly within a week. By the end of last week, the air quality in Delhi and various parts of India had taken a massive dip.

On the other hand, politics over stubble burning has already started, as farmers have started getting fined due to it.

So far, Punjab has reported 1,842 cases of stubble burning on Tuesday, for which the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress are blaming the Aam Aadmi Party's government.

In Ludhiana district, the government has so far imposed Rs 2.47 lakh in fines on farmers who burnt crop residue. Besides, 79 'red entries' have also been made in revenue records. Once a red entry is made in revenue records, a farmer may not be able to mortgage or sell the land.

The BJP has targeted the AAP government over the rising stubble burning cases and asked it to wake up from its "deep slumber".

Stubble burning is always named as one of the major factors for pollution in Delhi-NCR, barring it is not a major reason for air pollution in Punjab, where it is happening.

The practice has been formally banned by the Supreme Court, and farmers were warned they would face fines for violating the decree.

"I find it funny when they blame us for pollution in Delhi. We are literally there on the field doing this. While the pollution levels in Punjab remain fine. It is all political chaos," a Ludhiana based farmer told The Citizen.

Stubble burning cannot be fully ruled out as a pollution driving factor, however, experts believe blaming it as the sole reason for it is wrong. The NCR's pollution problem is due to various other reasons including emissions from tailpipes of vehicles, industrial activities and geographical factors such as wind speeds.

Winds blowing at around 6-7 kmph on Diwali checked the accumulation of pollutants on the festival day. There are also early indications of a decrease in farm fires in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

The court has also come down hard on states as well as central governments over the issue and despite stringent measures, the situation does not improve.

While stubble burning is one of the reasons for air pollution, vehicular emissions are also considered a major pollutant factor in Delhi-NCR.

In 2021, the Supreme Court warned of strict action and had given a 24-hour ultimatum to centre, Delhi, and neighbouring states to act against industrial and vehicular pollution. This was counted as the main causes behind the deteriorating air quality.

This year, however, the AAP government in Delhi has blamed buses from Uttar Pradesh for vehicular emissions.

Delhi Environment Minister Gopal has blamed the vehicular emissions from government buses operating in Uttar Pradesh for the rise in pollution in the national capital.

According to a 2021 survey by the Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based research and advocacy organisation, emissions from two-, three- and four-wheeled vehicles account for more than half of Delhi's particulate pollution.

"Clearly, after the closure of all coal-based power plants, expansion of natural gas usage in industry and controls on dirty fuels, vehicles have emerged as the biggest real time contributor among the local sources of winter pollution in Delhi this year. Action on transportation has to gather strong momentum. At the same time, action on waste management, clean energy access in households, and dust control must be speeded up," stated Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director-research and advocacy, CSE.

The Delhi government, now, is following a Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) to combat air pollution in the city. Under the plan, construction activities are banned at stage three — when the air quality hits the "severe" level.

It envisions a four-stage ad-hoc mechanism wherein Stage 1 of GRAP is activated when the AQI is in the 'poor' category (201 to 300), while the second, third and fourth stages are activated three days ahead of the AQI reaching the 'very poor' category (301 to 400), 'severe' category (401 to 450) and 'severe +' category (above 450) respectively.

The origin of the GRAP dates back to the 2016 Supreme Court verdict, where state authorities were directed to take gradual steps to maintain the air quality standards in the Delhi NCR.

Air quality monitoring and meteorological forecasts are based on data from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) and the India Meteorological Department (IMD).

Following a modification in 2020, the GRAP now focuses on a more comprehensive AQI, which accounts for other pollutants such as ozone, sulphur dioxide, and oxides of nitrogen as well.

Furthermore, till 2020, the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority (EPCA) implemented the plan, but this was dissolved two years ago and the responsibility to enforce the GRAP now rests with the Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas (CAQM).

Meanwhile, in July this year the National Human Rights Commission has issued a notice to the Union Environment Ministry over the impact of air pollution on the life expectancy of people.

In a statement, the NHRC said it has taken motu cognizance of media reports quoting a survey that air pollution is a great threat to human health in India, reducing overall life expectancy by five years and 9.7 years for the people in Delhi.

It has also issued notice to the Secretary of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, seeking a report within four weeks, including the status of the National Clean Air Programme, launched in 2019.

The commission also expects the state authorities to take the issue with utmost sincerity in a time-bound manner, the statement said.

While the Supreme Court churns into action every year when the air pollution reaches dangerous levels, the situation is far from better.