Delhi closes schools over 'severe' toxic air pollution

Doctors say measures do not go far enough as city of 20 million people is shrouded in toxic smog

A smoggy morning in New Delhi, India, on Friday. Reuters
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Primary schools in India's capital New Delhi were shut on Friday as air pollution reached “severe” levels, with experts saying anti-pollution measures do not go far enough to protect children from its dangerous health effects.

“In light of the rising pollution levels, all government and private primary schools in Delhi will remain closed for the next two days,” Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Delhi, said on X, formerly Twitter.

The city of 20 million people has been shrouded in a toxic smog since the beginning of the month. Visibility was reduced to 500m on Friday morning, as social media users shared videos of the pollution "apocalypse".

Air Quality Index levels in Delhi rose above 400, with the Ashok Vihar station recording 446 AQI, according to the Central Pollution Control Board, the country’s leading environmental watchdog.

An AQI between zero and 50 is considered good, 51-100 is satisfactory, 101-200 moderate, 201-300 poor, 301-400 very poor and 401-500 severe, according to India's air quality standards, which are less stringent than those followed by the World Health Organisation.

Most of the pollution on Wednesday was from PM 2.5 – particulate matter 2.5 microns in diameter or less – and PM 10, according to IQAir, a Swiss company that tracks air quality data worldwide.

The PM 2.5 levels were 417 while PM 10 was 500, the CPCB said in its daily bulletin.

Prolonged exposure to PM 2.5 between 300 and 400 is responsible for respiratory illness, whereas PM 10 between 400 and 500 affects healthy people and seriously affects those with existing diseases, the CPCB says.

“My nose has been itching and my eyes are burning. I am having difficulty in breathing. I can smell and taste dust. I am also worried for my son, who has a runny nose,” Sonam Vardhan, the mother of a four-year-old, told The National.

Many people who had left for morning walks were returning home after complaining of throat and nose congestion. Some were wearing masks.

“I don't know what is the reason, but I have never experienced anything like this before in Delhi. By this time there should be winter fog, but all we can experience is dust and pollution,” said Sonia Lamba, an X user.

Delhi’s environment minister, Gopal Rai, said that the situation could worsen in the next two weeks and that the government was working on a “war-footing” to control the situation.

“We are continuously working on policies … in the whole of North India, there is this kind of situation of AQI ... he next 15 days are very critical for Delhi. The speed of the wind is low, and the temperature is going down,” Mr Rai said.

He blamed the crisis in Delhi on pollution in neighbouring states that had been blown into the city and become trapped, forming a noxious blanket of smog.

The burning of crop stubble by farmers in the nearby states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan, and the setting off of fireworks to celebrate religious festivals, add to Delhi's winter pollution surge, despite both activities being banned.

“It is wrong to think that the Delhi government can control pollution completely because the matter of pollution is not of Delhi alone. Sources outside Delhi cause twice the pollution here than the sources within. The government is working on a war-footing. We will focus more to control the situation,” he said.

The Delhi government has implemented a graded response action plan to combat air pollution in winter, halting construction and demolition work and banning the entry of light commercial vehicles registered outside Delhi and diesel-guzzling lorries.

The government has also set up Green War Rooms, a high-tech centre, where 17 experts monitor giant screens livestreaming pollution hot spots and updating AQI sensors. The government is using mobile anti-smog guns and water sprinklers to suppress dust.

Health experts, however, say the measures are temporary and will not solve the pollution crisis in the city.

Dr Sushil Kumar Kabra, a paediatric pulmonologist at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, expressed his concern about the potential increase in asthma and respiratory problems, especially among children and the elderly, in the coming days.

“In Delhi, about 15 per cent to 20 per cent of children have asthma and their condition is bound to exacerbate. There are also children and even adults with no underlying conditions but due to pollution, we receive more patients in emergencies complaining of breathlessness or respiratory issues,” Dr Kabra told The National.

“Shutting down schools for two days are temporary measures. Delhi has pollution throughout the year barring 10-12 days. It is worse during winter. There must be a long-term policy for the nation. The cities which have more pollution and the factors contributing to pollution should be studied,” he said.

He further advised parents to not let their children leave home during morning and evening hours when pollution is "more prevalent and make them wear masks".

Updated: November 03, 2023, 6:01 PM