Fire­crack­ers from Di­wali cel­e­bra­tions shroud Delhi in toxic smog

The Guardian Australia - - World News - Michael Safi, south Asia correspondent

Pol­lu­tion in the In­dian cap­i­tal Delhi ex­ceeded the safe limit by 66 times on Thurs­day, shroud­ing the city in toxic fumes the morn­ing after mil­lions of fire­crack­ers were burst for the Hindu fes­ti­val Di­wali.

Delhi govern­ment mon­i­tors showed the den­sity of fine pol­lu­tants — small enough to evade the body’s nat­u­ral de­fences and breach the blood-brain bar­rier — reached 1,665 in Anand Vi­har, a cen­tral neigh­bour­hood. The World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion’s safe limit for pol­lu­tants that size is 25.

Images from across Delhi showed it blan­keted in thick haze that slowed traf­fic and en­gulfed the city’s best­known mon­u­ments. Health of­fi­cials warn the air can cause headaches and res­pi­ra­tory dis­com­fort in the short term and has been linked to heart dis­ease, chronic res­pi­ra­tory dis­ease, lung cancer, cog­ni­tive de­cline and obe­sity in the long term.

Along with ex­chang­ing sweets and light­ing tra­di­tional lamps, con­tend­ing with poi­sonous fog has be­come an annual fea­ture of the Di­wali fes­ti­val in Delhi and other ma­jor In­dian cities — de­spite at­tempts by the In­dian supreme court to limit the use of crack­ers dur­ing the sea­son.

Last year the court banned the use of crack­ers in Delhi out­right as a trial. This year it lim­ited their use to a twohour win­dow, and said only “green” crack­ers – which sup­pos­edly emit less pol­lu­tion and noise – would be per­mit­ted.

Both years, Delhi res­i­dents have flouted the re­stric­tions, and crack­ers could still be heard go­ing off in parts of the city on Thurs­day morn­ing. One re­search group, Ur­ban Emis­sions, es­ti­mated five mil­lion kilo­grams of fire­works had been burst, the same as in 2017.

Delhi po­lice said they had seized more than 600kg of fire­crack­ers from across the city, reg­is­tered 120 crim­i­nal cases and ar­rested 28 peo­ple in the past day.

“It’s a tra­di­tion,” said Gopal, 40, a fit­ness in­struc­tor based in Chat­tur­pur, south of Delhi, who burst crack­ers with his chil­dren on Wed­nes­day evening. “Lord Ram came home after 14 years so we cel­e­brate it with crack­ers and sweets and many oth­ers things.”

He said peo­ple else­where used fire­works to cel­e­brate events such as New Year’s Eve. “We only use it for one day and that can be al­lowed,” Gopal said. “It’s not good if we’re not go­ing to cel­e­brate our tra­di­tion, which is more than 4,000 years old.”

Talk shows in the coun­try have de­bated whether the ban on fire­crack­ers in­fringed In­di­ans’ right to wor­ship, with some mak­ing the point the fire­crack­ers cause a short-term spike in an en­vi­ron­ment al­ready dan­ger­ously pol­luted by ve­hi­cles, in­dus­trial fumes, con­struc­tion sites and the sea­sonal burn­ing of crop residue by farm­ers in neigh­bour­ing states.

Pol­lu­tion lev­els in the week lead­ing up to Wed­nes­day reached more than 25 times the safe limit, mostly due to farm fires Haryana and Pun­jab states, which formed a cloud of smoke over north In­dia that “hun­dreds, if not thou­sands of kilo­me­tres long and about 20 to 30 kilo­me­tres wide”, said Josh Apte, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Texas who re­searches air qual­ity.

Recog­ni­tion is grow­ing that poor air qual­ity is a re­gional is­sue that af­flicts other cities in north In­dia to an even worse de­gree than Delhi; and that the cap­i­tal’s pol­lu­tion is ex­ac­er­bated by un­lucky ge­og­ra­phy.

“If the same amount of emis­sions were there in both Ber­lin and Delhi, Ber­lin would have bet­ter air qual­ity sim­ply be­cause it’s a windy city,” said Sid­dharth Singh, au­thor of The Great Smog of In­dia, a new book on the cri­sis.

He said over­pop­u­la­tion, lead­ing to an in­crease in ve­hi­cles and con­struc­tion, was the ma­jor cul­prit for the de­clin­ing air qual­ity, but that Delhi was also cursed by the com­bi­na­tion of low wind speeds and sur­round­ing moun­tains which trapped the air.

“Hu­man ac­tiv­ity leads to most of the emis­sions stock in the air, but the geo­graphic re­al­ity is that the emis­sions emit­ted by hu­man ac­tiv­ity will have a far worse im­pact in Delhi than other cities.”

After sev­eral Sri Lankan crick­eters vom­ited on the pitch at a Delhi sta­dium early this year, fo­cus has grown on the im­pact of the air on ath­letes and the po­ten­tial for sport­ing events to be shifted out of the city dur­ing the win­ter.

Atul Chauhan, a pro­fes­sional badminton player based in Delhi, said his squad had sim­ply stopped train­ing this week and were spend­ing their time in­side their air-pu­ri­fied homes.

“We have an up­com­ing tour­na­ment right now, we should be train­ing like hell, but in this weather it’s bet­ter to stay home than prac­tice,” Chauhan, 26, said.

“Play­ing now, I get tired within 20 min­utes, even though I have the stamina of more than one hour. It’s like some­thing is in­side your eyes, you can’t see prop­erly. And when the shut­tle­cock is com­ing at 300km/h, you can’t see it prop­erly.”

Pho­to­graph: Divyakant Solanki/EPA

In­dian men walk past fire­works amid smog on Di­wali

Pho­to­graph: Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images

A man cy­cles past a govern­ment build­ing amid heavy smog in Delhi

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