Delhi schools close after India's top court demands action on air pollution

Levels of PM2.5 reach 400 in some areas of the Indian capital on Thursday

Traffic travels along a smoggy road in New Delhi.  AFP
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Authorities in Delhi on Thursday ordered schools to shut indefinitely after the country’s top court criticised the resumption of physical classes amid dangerous levels of air pollution and demanded action.

The closure order came after the Supreme Court gave the federal and Delhi governments 24 hours to combat industrial and vehicular pollution, the two major causes of Delhi’s toxic air.

Chief Justice of India N V Ramana asked why adults were able to work remotely while children were expected to attend classes in person.

“Elders have to work from home and children have to go to school?” Mr Ramana said.

Delhi’s schools only reopened on Monday after the Supreme Court ordered their closure on November 13 because of high levels of air pollution, initially for a period of one week.

The Indian capital ranks among the world’s most polluted cities and is enveloped in thick smog every winter. The pollution is made worse by farmers in states around the capital burning the stubble of harvested crops to prepare their fields for the next planting season.

The Delhi government ordered the closure of polluting industries and banned construction activity in recent weeks after the top court asked it to take immediate action.

Delhi’s air pollution was in the severe category on Thursday, with levels of PM2.5 – the fine particles linked to higher rates of chronic bronchitis and lung disease – reaching 400 in some areas, according to the government's System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research. Levels from 151 to 200 are considered unhealthy.

Health experts say breathing in the toxic air can cause short and long-term respiratory and cardiac illnesses, including in children, and advise against exposure to outdoor air.

Schools in the capital went online in March 2020 when the country imposed a weeks-long coronavirus lockdown but resumed physical classes in a staggered manner in recent months before the pollution crisis deepened in early November.

'The National' visits India's burning farms blamed for Delhi's toxic air pollution

'The National' visits India's burning farms blamed for Delhi's toxic air pollution

In previous years, the Delhi government regularly closed schools to protect children from breathing the toxic air.

Many parents were concerned over the reopening of schools in the city, which is battling coronavirus and pollution.

“I have not sent my son for physical classes … it is a huge risk. I am happy that the schools have been shut. If this protects the children’s health then so be it,” Runa Kaushal, 35, mother of a 12-year-old pupil in Delhi, told The National.

But some parents said the move was cosmetic, accusing the government of ignoring the root cause of the city’s pollution scourge amid concerns that frequent and long absence from schools was hampering children’s growth.

“Since we are living in a polluted city, the air kids breathe doesn’t change. Closing schools indefinitely is just making a futile attempt at showing that something is being done, but nothing really,” said Amit Deb, 37, whose daughter was kept off school by the closures.

Deep Narayan Tewari, principal of the city's renowned Laxman Public School, called the frequent closures an “eccentric response”.

Mr Tiwari said that the long closure of schools was worrying because it will severely affect the physical, social and psychological behaviour of the children.

“They make decisions at the drop of a hat. Such frequent closures are affecting the physical and psychological health of children. If they can go to malls and markets, they can certainly attend physical classes,” he said.

“School is not just a place for academic learning, but physical and sports activities as well. The children have pent-up anxiety due to such frequent decisions since the pandemic and we do not know how to handle them once they return to schools,” Mr Tewari said.

Updated: December 02, 2021, 6:11 PM