Schools and colleges in Delhi and half a dozen satellite cities have been closed and coal power plants shut following a dangerous spike in toxic air pollutants in the region.
Delhi has been reeling under a dangerous spell of pollution in recent weeks that has seen India’s Supreme Court slam the government and recommend a “pollution lockdown” to battle the noxious air scourge.
The government-run Commission for Air Quality Management late on Tuesday ordered the closure of educational institutions and halted construction activities in the Indian capital and its adjoining cities until the weekend.
Schools in Delhi were closed last week for a seven-day period following stinging remarks by the top court, that expressed concerns about the impact of pollution on children's health.
The Supreme Court has criticised the government over the lack of emergency measures and condemned authorities for their lack of preparedness to mitigate the crisis, that worsens every winter.
Coal plants shut
Last week, the court told the government to consider imposing a lockdown to battle the pollution.
The court’s recommendation stirred the government to take fresh measures that include shutting down all coal-fired power plants surrounding the megacity of 20 million residents until the end of the month and banning the entry of non-essential heavy vehicles into the city.
The court also said the government should allow 50 per cent of public sector staff to work from home to cut down on vehicular pollution. But the central government resisted the move, arguing that it would have a nationwide impact on governance.
Delhi is the country’s power centre, where top ministers and staff run hundreds of offices.
“One hundred less vehicles on the road does less to reduce pollution but causes pan-India ramifications for us as several government functions were affected due to Covid-19 for substantially a long period of time,” Tushar Mehta, India’s Solicitor General told the court.
However, Mr Mehta said “an advisory on carpooling” had been issued for employees in Delhi, where vehicular pollution is a leading element in the cloud of smog that blankets the city.
Delhi’s overall air pollution index hovered in the “very poor” category, at 379 on Wednesday morning, according to the government-run System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research.
PM 2.5 — the finest particulate matter blamed for chronic lung and heart diseases — hovered around 200, nearly a dozen times more than World Health Organisation safe limits.
A thick layer of yellow smog has enveloped Delhi — one of the most polluted capital cities in the world — since the beginning of the month.
Emissions from millions of vehicles, factories, construction and road dust are the main contaminants. Successive governments have also blamed seasonal stubble burning in the vast farmlands of neighbouring Punjab and Haryana states for the pollution crisis in the region.
The city government said it will be hiring 1,000 private CNG-run buses to strengthen the city's sparse public transport.
It is also considering implementing a ban on the service of 10-year-old diesel and 15-year-old petrol vehicles, which an environmental court has supported.