Srinagar's Air Quality: How Vehicle Pollution and Power Shortages Have Been Worsening the Issue

The prolonged poor air quality in Srinagar during the winter months, spanning November to February, has been a consistent concern for the past decade. Studies attribute the issue to a combination of human-related and natural factors, including biomass fuel burning.

Srinagar: Over the past month, Srinagar’s Air Quality Index has consistently remained in the ‘poor category’, especially in the mornings and evenings when the temperature drops.

As per the data from the J&K Pollution Control Board, the Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Centre at Rajbagh, Srinagar, recorded PM10 levels as high as 227.9 and PM2.5 levels of 73.3 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) on certain days in December. According to weather.com, Srinagar’s AQI was 340 µg/m3 on the morning of January 5, 340 µg/m3 on January 6, 311 µg/m3 on January 7, and 321 µg/m3 on January 8.

The permissible limit of PM2.5 levels in India is 60 µg/m3, as per the revised guidelines of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. The World Health Organisation’s latest global air pollution standard allows for an average of only 15 μg/m3 of PM2.5 concentration in a 24-hour period.

According to available data, the carbon monoxide (CO) levels in the air reached as high as 900 µg/m3 on most days during severe winter months. Other air quality-related websites also report similar findings. Both government and non-government sources indicate that air quality in Srinagar has been consistently concerning between November and February, at least for the past decade.

‘Winter Burst of Pristine Kashmir Valley Air,’ a study published in 2018 in The Nature, revealed that in Srinagar, the PM2.5 levels reached as high as 348 µg/m3 during a portion of the study period. The permissible limit in India, as mentioned earlier, is 60 µg/m3. Researchers attribute the poor air quality to a combination of human-related and natural factors.

Another study revealed that calm winds, weak mixing conditions, temperature inversion, and a shallow planetary boundary layer are responsible for exacerbating the impact of widespread biomass fuel burning in winters, as well as the presence of transport exhaust and particulate matter carried from distant regions by westerlies.

The study, ‘Particulate Pollution over an urban Himalayan site: Temporal variability, impact of meteorology and potential source regions’, published in Science of the Total Environment, is authored by professor Shakil Romshoo, Mudasir Ahmad Bhat, and Gufran Beig.

It delves deep into the status and causes of air pollution in Srinagar.

“Mass concentration of PM2.5 and PM10 in Srinagar, our study revealed, is higher than other high-altitude sites in Hindu Kush Himalayas,” Romshoo said.

Moreover, poor air quality is a major concern for people with respiratory ailments. This has led medical professionals to call for stronger and consistent efforts to curtail controllable sources of pollutants.

According to a report published in The Lancet, J&K was among the top four regions for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), with over 4,700 people suffering from this respiratory disorder per lakh of the population. This number is twice as high as in most Indian states. COPD is also among the leading causes of death in India.

The report is titled, ‘Burden of Chronic Respiratory Diseases and their heterogeneity across the states of India: the global burden of disease study 1990-2016’.

Professor Parvaiz A. Koul, pulmonologist and an avid researcher, was one of the contributing authors to this study. Currently, he’s the director of Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences. He said that every winter, Kashmir’s hospitals face a deluge of patients with respiratory distress and ailments.

“We have the highest prevalence of chronic airflow limitation in India: one in every five individuals over the age of 40 years,” he said. “Smoking and air pollution are known contributing factors, although we need more research in these areas,” he added.

Koul said that there may be a genetic factor, but genes could not be altered. Therefore, we need to work on external factors. “Domestic and ambient air quality are the keys. Anything that pollutes the air needs to be addressed and addressed on priority,” he said.

Data from the Department of Road Transport in J&K reveals that the vehicle population in Srinagar is approximately 4 lakh, excluding vehicles from other districts, states, and those owned by the armed forces. The rate of increase in the number of vehicles in J&K over the past five years has been unprecedented. Between 2012 and 2017, there were 4,78,292 new vehicle registrations, and this number surged to 7,84,503 between 2017 and 2022. According to the National Family Health Survey-5, 24% of households in J&K own a car, the second-highest after Kerala. The dismal public transport situation necessitates the reliance on and usage of private transportation.

According to an official from the Motor Vehicles Department, who requested anonymity, there is a shortage of 2 lakh public transport seats per day in Srinagar. The emissions from the congested roads in Srinagar, caused by the ever-growing use of privately owned fossil fuel-burning vehicles, are paving the way for a potential health and environmental catastrophe.

The study on particulate pollution by Romshoo advocates a strict check on emissions from coal burning, dusty roads, wood burning, and vehicular traffic. It calls for the utilisation of Kashmir’s hydroelectric potential to replace fossil fuels and wood burning in winters. However, Kashmir faces acute power shortages that get worse in winters.

Dr. Naveed Nazir Shah, head of the pulmonology department at the Chest Diseases Hospital in Srinagar, said that power shortages force people to use wood and coal-based heating in their homes, contributing to indoor air pollution. Furthermore, individuals relying on oxygen therapy face challenges as they do not receive round-the-clock electricity to operate the essential oxygen concentrators they depend on.

He said that the patient number has been increasing threefold every winter. “The infections, the allergies, the COPD, everything worsens with cold and the smog that we have in Srinagar. The power shortages are also affecting us in many ways,” he said.