India’s capital, Delhi, and several surrounding states have shut schools, imposed work-from-home orders and a full weekend lockdown of the city is being contemplated in an attempt to tackle the deadly levels of pollution that have yet again enveloped the region.
Over the past weeks, in what has become a dreaded seasonal occurrence, Delhi has suffered pollution levels 20 times higher than the levels deemed healthy by the World Health Organization and a thick brown smog settled over the city.
The causes of the severe pollution that have made Delhi the most polluted capital in the world are a combination of factors including car exhaust fumes, stubble-burning by farmers in nearby states, industrial pollution, waste burning and construction work.
The drop in temperature, change in air pressure and the lack of wind as winter arrives then causes the pollution to become trapped over the city like a toxic umbrella.
Delhi was given a brief reprieve last November as Covid-19 reduced industrial activity and cars on the roads, but pollution has returned to the same deadly levels as before and on several days even hit a rating of 1,000 AQI in some areas – the highest the charts can measure.
People going outside have complained of stinging eyes, nausea, breathing difficulties and lethargy caused by the toxic air and doctors reported a sharp rise in admissions related to respiratory and cardiac problems.
The school closures in the capital, which came only weeks after they reopened following 18 months of being closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, were joined by measures including a halt to construction work and drivers of Delhi’s 13m cars being asked to turn off their engines when stationary at traffic lights.
Delhi’s state government has also said it is ready to impose an emergency weekend lockdown, similar to that implemented for the first time during Covid, to ease pollution levels, as India’s supreme court summoned it to demand answers on how the pollution was being dealt with, saying it required “drastic steps”.
The court reprimanded the Delhi government for “passing the buck”and ordered it to hold an emergency meeting within 48 hours with the central government to find concrete ways to tackle the pollution.
The Delhi government, however, told the judges a lockdown would have “limited” impact unless it was imposed on all the neighbouring states.
Other north Indian states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have also imposed work from home orders this week as air quality plummeted. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, ordered that people use public transport rather than cars and for the ban on stubble-burning to be fully enforced
In October, the air in Delhi was at its cleanest in years due to belated monsoon rains but the situation began to rapidly deteriorate after Diwali, in the first week of November, as the temperature and wind in the city dropped, firecrackers were set off across the city despite a ban, and millions of cars – consistently the biggest source of pollution from within the capital – were on the roads. In recent days, stubble-burning from farms in neighbouring rural states has been responsible for up to 48% of the pollutants in capital’s air.
A survey conducted this week by the digital community platform Local Circles found that 86% of families in Delhi surveyed had someone experiencing ailments, including sore throat, congestion, breathing difficulties and headaches, due to the toxic air. The pollution is also known to have long-term impacts. A study published in a science journal this year found that one-third of deaths in India – more than 2.5 million people – were as a result of air pollution.
The Delhi government has taken steps to bring down the pollution in recent years, including closing all coal-fired power stations, expanding the public transport networks, which now only run on natural gas, banning diesel trucks from entering the city during the day, imposing a clean fuel policy and regulating construction.
Smog towers, erected by the Delhi government to supposedly filter the city’s air, appeared to have little impact.
Anumita Roy Chowdhury, the executive director of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, said: “We cannot do anything about the weather but we should be able to control the pollution. There are still certain sectors where we have to do a lot more, particularly the number of private vehicles in the city, which are exploding right now because public transport and walking infrastructure has not been built to the scale that is needed. Waste burning is also a huge problem, as is the booming construction sector.”
However, she emphasised that the pollution was not Delhi’s alone. “If you take a satellite view of the entire north of India right now, you’ll see the smog problem has built up across the whole Indo-Gangetic plain, which means this is not a problem Delhi can fix within its own boundaries,” she said. “This requires a strong regional approach. And a lockdown is not a silver bullet that will make all the pollution just disappear.”