Smog in New Delhi so in­tense that one air­line can­cels all flights

The air-qual­ity read­ings in some ar­eas were 40 times the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion's rec­om­mended safe level

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY VIDHI DOSHI vidhi.doshi@wash­post.com

new delhi — As a thick, ghostly haze shrouded In­dia’s cap­i­tal city, Juhi Dhaul and her fam­ily packed their bags and planned to leave town.

“My kids have been sit­ting in one room with three air pu­ri­fiers on since Wed­nes­day,” she said. “They’re vir­tu­ally un­der house ar­rest.”

New Delhi’s air qual­ity con­sis­tently ranks among the worst in the world, but the city’s air pol­lu­tion last week reg­is­tered 10 times worse than the air in Bei­jing, which is no­to­ri­ous for its smog. Res­i­dents com­plain of burn­ing eyes and itchy throats, and doc­tors said chest in­fec­tions and res­pi­ra­tory ill­nesses have surged.

Au­thor­i­ties or­dered 6,000 schools to close, trucks ex­cept those car­ry­ing es­sen­tial sup­plies have been banned from en­ter­ing the city for a week, and con­struc­tion projects have been tem­po­rar­ily stopped.

Dhaul and her fam­ily es­cape to other cities around the coun­try each win­ter, when pol­lu­tion lev­els peak. But for the past few years, Dhaul says, things have been so bad that they may re­lo­cate per­ma­nently.

“Our kids’ lungs are ag­ing faster than they are,” she said. “My 6-year-old is very al­ler­gic, so when pol­lu­tion lev­els go up, she breaks out in rashes. And she has a never-end­ing dry cough.”

Chil­dren of­ten feel the phys­i­cal ef­fects of the toxic air acutely; in ad­di­tion to closed schools, sports and out­door play are be­ing dis­cour­aged in the toxic air. Many sit cooped up at home, some with lit­tle more than a cloth wrapped around their faces to pro­tect against the smoky air.

“Ev­ery win­ter, the weather be­comes hos­tile,” said An­u­mita Roy­chowd­hury, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor at the Cen­ter for Sci­ence and En­vi­ron­ment in New Delhi. “Around this time of year, the air is cooler and the wind dis­ap­pears al­most en­tirely from the city. What you see is com­bi­na­tion of local pol­lu­tion plus episodic pol­lu­tion, from winds from sur­round­ing re­gions where farm­ers burn crop stub­ble in this sea­son.”

In some parts of Delhi, airqual­ity read­ings were 40 times the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion's rec­om­mended safe level. Air­fare spiked as sup­ply dipped in lowvis­i­bil­ity con­di­tions; trains were delayed and bus com­pa­nies re­ported that peo­ple were can­cel­ing tick­ets out of fear of high­way ac­ci­dents.

In a less af­flu­ent quar­ter of the city, Babu­ram Durbedy’s grand­son hasn’t been eat­ing. “His tem­per­a­ture is up and he keeps get­ting out of breath,” Durbedy said, who wiped his own ir­ri­tated eyes as he spoke.

Durbedy earns just enough to sur­vive, work­ing as a se­cu­rity guard in the city. Buy­ing high-end air pu­ri­fiers is not an op­tion, nor is ex­pen­sive med­i­cal care. The fam­ily of five has two thin gas masks to share. “We just rub Vicks on his chest,” he said, re­fer­ring to the med­i­cated va­por rub.

A re­cent study linked 2.5 mil­lion deaths in In­dia in 2015 to pol­lu­tion. Wor­ried par­ents car­ried cough­ing chil­dren into hos­pi­tals around the city.

“We’ve seen around a 30 to 35 per­cent in­crease of pa­tients in the past cou­ple of days,” said Anu­pam Sibal, group med­i­cal di­rec­tor and se­nior pe­di­a­tri­cian at Apollo Hos­pi­tals. “It wasn’t like this five years ago. Chil­dren with res­pi­ra­tory prob­lems are find­ing their is­sues are ex­ac­er­bated. It af­fects ev­ery­one.”

Delhi’s chief min­is­ter de­scribed the city as a “gas cham­ber,” and the gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced a slew of emer­gency mea­sures, in­clud­ing shut­ting down a coal-fired power plant and pol­lut­ing brick kilns, and in­tro­duc­ing an “odd-even” pro­gram, in which cars can be driven only on al­ter­nat­ing days of the week de­pend­ing on their li­cense plate num­bers in an ef­fort to curb traf­fic.

At one school, the an­nual sports day cer­e­mony was canceled. “Ev­ery­one is re­ally dis­ap­pointed,” said 17-year old Se­hej Arora, who helped or­ga­nize the event. “It’s one thing our en­tire school looks for­ward to to­gether. We were up­set at first, but within 10 min­utes of be­ing out­side, you can feel the air. My throat itches.”

Oth­ers scram­bled to find work out­side the city. Aditya Khanna, who splits his time be­tween Eng­land and In­dia, re­lo­cated his fam­ily to London a month ago partly be­cause of how bad the air is.

“Ob­vi­ously you don’t want to see your chil­dren sick all the time, you don’t want to be con­stantly pump­ing an­tibi­otics into them,” he said. “And it’s not fun. The kids don’t go out to play be­cause you’re con­stantly con­cerned. It was very clear to me that I was not go­ing to ex­pose my kids to it on a longterm ba­sis.”

DO­MINIQUE FAGET/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IM­AGES

La­bor­ers work on a con­struc­tion site in New Delhi dur­ing a pe­riod of heavy smog con­di­tions on Tues­day. New Delhi’s chief min­is­ter de­scribed the city as a “gas cham­ber.”

SAUMYA KHAN­DEL­WAL/REUTERS

A wo­man cov­ers her face as she waits for a bus on Wed­nes­day morn­ing. A satel­lite im­age from the same day shows the pol­lu­tion.

Source: NASA's MODIS Terra satel­lite, data as of Nov. 8 THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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