India's top court orders New Delhi lockdown over dangerous smog

The world's most polluted capital is again bathed in a noxious cloud of hazardous pollution caused by cars, factories and burning stubble

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India’s Supreme Court on Saturday proposed a total lockdown in New Delhi, including the closure of all schools, as it hit out at the government over hazardous air pollution levels in the city.

Air in Delhi – the world’s most polluted capital – remains hazardous throughout the year but hits catastrophic levels every winter when a thick layer of noxious smog envelops the city of 21 million.

“Can you think of two days lockdown or something, how can people live?” asked a bench led by Chief Justice NV Ramana, while hearing a petition by a 17-year-old Delhi student over the state's alleged “non-seriousness” in tackling the pollution crisis.

The court demanded that the government take emergency measures to reduce the pollution levels in Delhi as it termed the situation “very serious”.

“We have been forced to wear masks even at home, the situation is very serious,” Justice Ramana said.

It also expressed concern over schools being open in the city when pollution levels were severe and could gravely impact the health of the children.

Shortly after the Saturday ruling, the Delhi government announced that schools would close for a week and that it was shutting offices, saying employees should work from home to cut down on traffic pollution. It advised private companies to do the same.

A thick haze of eye-stinging smog has shrouded the city since early November caused by emissions from millions of vehicles, factories and construction sites, along with toxic smoke from fires burning the stubble on vast paddy fields in the northern states.

Delhi’s air pollution continued to remain in the “severe” category on Saturday, according to the government's System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research. It advised residents to avoid outdoor activity and wear masks.

Levels of tiny particulate matter – PM 2.5, the most harmful pollutants that enter deep into the lungs – hovered around 320, almost 12 times higher than World Health Organisation’s safe limits advise of 25 micrograms per cubic metre.

Many people complained of burning eyes, itchy throat and headaches, as hospitals reported a surge in admissions and consultations.

“I feel choked. My throat burns, my eyes sting. My child is coughing badly. It is a dangerous situation outside,” Sonam Arora, a banker and mother of a two-year-old son, told The National.

Delhi has faced the scourge of air pollution for decades but in recent years it has hit alarming levels, with the Supreme Court in 2019 calling the city a “gas chamber.”

Governments have battled the crisis by limiting vehicle use, shutting down polluting factories and banning construction activity to try to ease the smog.

But there has been no respite.

The city recorded its worst air quality levels in the past 15 years on Friday, according to federal watchdog the Central Pollution Control Board.

The board blamed calm conditions over the city and smoke emanating from stubble burning in northern states for the worsening air quality.

At the onset of winter, tens of thousands of farmers in neighbouring states of Haryana and Punjab burn paddy stubble to clear their fields for the next crop.

Most of the smoke travels to Delhi due to south-western winds and mixes with the polluted city air to form a noxious blanket of smog.

Although the practice is now outlawed, more than 51,000 fires were reported in the twin breadbasket states in the last 10 days.

Experts, however, say the crude practice is not the only culprit in Delhi’s pollution crisis that has become a health hazard.

Environmental charity Centre for Science and Environment on Friday said its research found that vehicle emissions remain the biggest contributor to the city’s toxic air quality.

It contributed up to 53 per cent to Delhi’s pollution between October 24 and November 8 this year.

“Vehicles have emerged as the biggest real-time contributor among the local sources of winter pollution in Delhi this year,” Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of research and advocacy with CSE, said.

Updated: November 15, 2021, 8:27 AM