Delhi shuts schools as smog sparks health ‘emergency’
The sickening air pollution that led the Indian capital to shut schools and construction sites this week has prompted similar measures in nearby cities. Officials in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh said yesterday that they expect the acrid smog to blanket the state within days.
For more than a week, New Delhi’s skies have been filled with a thick haze that has made people’s eyes sting and their throats sore. Air pollution experts blame myriad pollution sources, from diesel-burning cars and seasonal crop burning to garbage fires and stoves fueled with kerosene and cow dung. Winter weather patterns also mean there is less wind to circulate the air. The smog “remains in the lower atmospheric layer,” said Dr Surya Kant Tripathi, who heads the pulmonary medicine department at King George’s Medical University in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh.
He urged people to avoid going outdoors, unless wearing face masks. “Higher air pollution levels may take days to settle,” he said. Lucknow city director JP Gupta said the same smog covering New Delhi was wafting over western parts of Uttar Pradesh and would soon cover the entire state, India’s most populous, with around 210 million people. In the Uttar Pradesh district of Ghaziabad, considered an eastern suburb of New Delhi, schools were ordered closed along with those in the capital on Monday and Tuesday, after which Uttar Pradesh officials said they would reassess the situation.
There are no official air pollution monitors set up in the Delhi suburban areas, but in both New Delhi and Lucknow, the levels of PM2.5 - the tiny particulate matter that can clog lungs - were at least above 400 micrograms per cubic meter on Monday. That’s more than 40 times what’s considered safe by the World Health Organization, and more than six times the limit set by Indian law. Some monitoring points were registering levels much higher.
New Delhi has also ordered the temporary closure of a nearby coal-burning power plant, as well as construction and demolition sites blamed for sending huge plumes of fine dust particles into the air. It also ordered that roads be doused with water to settle dust, and banned diesel-powered electricity generators for 10 days except at hospitals and cellphone towers. Levels between 301 and 500 are classified as “hazardous”, meaning everyone faces a risk of respiratory effects and should stay indoors, while levels above 500 are beyond the official index.
Manan Mahato, who drives an auto rickshaw in Delhi, said he had sent his children to his native village because he was worried about their health. “It has become risky to stay in Delhi because of the pollution,” he said, holding a handkerchief over his mouth because he cannot afford a proper face mask. “I am sending my children back to the village as I am worried for their health. If it stays like this, I think this city won’t be liveable anymore.”
On Sunday hundreds of people, many wearing face masks, gathered in central Delhi to demand immediate action to curb the pollution levels, currently around 30 times the World Health Organization’s recommended PM2.5 safe limit of 25 micrograms per cubic meter of air.
Long queues formed outside shops selling face masks, a relatively novelty in Delhi as are the air purifiers that now feature in the homes of wealthy residents. The Delhi government said it was considering cloud-seeding to produce rain, a technique Beijing used to clear the air before the 2008 Olympic Games.
Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director at the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, said the city faced an “emergency situation”. “These temporary emergency measures are critical for bringing down the peak pollution levels,” she said. “Of course this cannot be permanent, you cannot keep people indoors forever,” she added.
NEW DELHI: Indian commuters journey along a main road as smog envelops the Indian capital.