New Delhi's sky line enveloped in smog and dust. Manish Swarup
India's capital

New Delhi under 'worst smog levels in recent years' from fumes, emissions and straw burning

India’s capital city is blanketed in a poisonous smog every winter.

INDIA’S CAPITAL NEW Delhi was enveloped today in the worst levels of heavy, toxic smog in recent years, with hundreds of flights diverted or delayed as politicians blamed each other for failing to tackle the crisis.

Every winter, the city of 20 million people is blanketed by a poisonous smog of car fumes, industrial emissions and smoke from stubble burning at farms in neighbouring states.

Concentrations of fine particles (2.5 microns or less in diameter) in the air hit the highest level of this season, India’s state-run System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) said.

The air quality index for PM 2.5 hit 810 early in the day, well beyond the “hazardous” zone, according to the US embassy in Delhi, which independently monitors pollution levels. 

The recommended World Health Organisation safe daily maximum is a reading of 25.

“Pollution has reached unbearable levels,” Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal tweeted Sunday.

Visibility was so poor at Delhi’s airports that 37 flights were diverted and hundreds of departures and arrivals were delayed, officials said.

The Twenty20 international between Bangladesh and India went ahead as planned on Sunday, with a near-capacity crowd in attendance despite health warnings from government agencies.

“It’s actually scary – you can’t see things in front of you,” protester Jaivipra told AFP at a rally in Delhi on Sunday calling for politicians to do more to curb pollution.

Nurses at the demonstration said they were seeing more people suffering as a result of the smog.

“Patients are coming with more lung and respiratory diseases, like more [are] affected with asthma,” Reshma C.M. said.

india-toxic-air Volunteers and policemen wearing pollution masks with a banner saying obey, odd and even, remove pollution. Manish Swarup Manish Swarup

Politician blame game

The conditions sparked a blame game between state and federal politicians over who was responsible, which authorities said reached “emergency” levels last Friday .

In a tweet last week, Kejriwal called on the state governments of neighbouring Punjab and Haryana to take action.

“Delhi has turned into a gas chamber due to smoke from crop burning in neighbouring states,” he tweeted.

Federal Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar accused Kejriwal of politicising the issue and presenting the two states “in a bad light and as villains”.

Schools in Delhi have already been ordered closed until Tuesday, and construction halted. From today, there will be an odd/even car licence plate scheme in an effort to thin out traffic.

Global non-profit Vital Strategies’ senior vice president for environmental health, Daniel Kass, said while temporary curbs were helpful, they had a limited impact over time.

“They are insufficient to address the most important aspect of air pollution, which is what people live with day-to-day,” Kass told AFP.

He said a range of measures needed to be imposed at local and national levels for air quality to improve.

Apart from changing agricultural practices, he said the measures should include more public transport investment, emission controls on two-wheelers, switching electricity generation sources and accelerating the conversion of home-heating from charcoal to natural gas.

Last year, a United Nations report found that 14 of the world’s 15 most polluted cities were in India, with one US study saying it kills a million people prematurely every year.

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