Hazardous air pollution turns New Delhi into a ‘gas chamber’

More than 30 flights are diverted from city airport due to poor visibility from smog

Air pollution in New Delhi and surrounding towns reached the worst levels so far this year on Sunday, with authorities in the world's most polluted capital city having already declared a public health emergency and ordered the closure of schools.

The air quality index (AQI), measuring levels of PM 2.5, tiny particulate matter in the air, deteriorated to above 900, way in excess of the 500-level that qualifies as “severe-plus”.

Aside from the harm it was doing to the lungs of some 40 million people living in the capital region, the smog was so bad more than 30 flights were diverted from Delhi airport due to poor visibility.

Roads looked deserted as large numbers of people stayed home, rather than expose themselves to the noxious atmosphere outside.


"Pollution has reached unbearable levels across north India, " Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi's chief minister, said in a message on Twitter.

The government environmental monitoring agency Safar warned that no relief was expected for the next one to two days, as humidity resulting from unexpected light rains overnight had exacerbated pollution, already driven higher by the seasonal crop stubble burning by farmers in the surrounding states.

"Wind speed is picking up and it could take 24 to 48 hours before the pollution level reduces to a level of around 500," Mahesh Palawat, vice-president of Skymet, a private weather-forecasting agency, said.

Anything above 400 on the AQI poses a risk for people with respiratory illness and can also affect even those with healthy lungs.

Spike in health issues

Doctors were reporting a spike in patients with respiratory-related issues, according to Sachin Taparia, head of Local Circles, a Delhi-based private consultancy that conducts surveys on government policies and programmes.

“Delhi has turned into a gas chamber as the pollution levels hit the ‘severe-plus’ category,” Mr Taparia said.

A survey of 17,000 people in the Delhi region by his consultancy found that 40 per cent want to get out of the Delhi region because of the failure to control pollution.

Authorities in Delhi on Friday declared a public health emergency, closing schools and halting all construction activity due to the air pollution.

From Monday, the city government will also restrict the use of private vehicles on the capital’s roads under an “odd-even” scheme based on licence plates.

“The temporary restrictions on private vehicles will have a negligible impact as we face the most hazardous situation,” said Mr Palawat.

Mr Kejriwal and the chief ministers from the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana urged the federal government to do more to combat the pollution.

On Monday, according to a lawyer, the supreme court is likely to hear a petition from an environmental agency looking for ways to make state governments take tougher action against farmers to curb the stubble burning. Politicians have thus far been reluctant to upset their farming constituencies.

According to Safar, satellite pictures had captured more than 3,000 incidents of stubble burning last week in neighbouring states, contributing to 44 per cent of New Delhi’s pollution. – Reuters