NEW DELHI — A thick gray haze enveloped India’s capital Nov. 7 as air pollution hit hazardous levels, prompting local officials to ask that schools shut down and a half marathon scheduled for later in November be called off.
The readings of the government’s air quality index hovered between 350 and 450, indicating that the health impact of breathing the air was “severe.” The highest reading on the Central Pollution Control Board’s index is 500. The pollutants Nov. 7 that had the maximum impact on the reading were PM 2.5 and PM 10 particulate matter.
As winter approaches, a thick, soupy smog routinely envelops most parts of northern India, caused by dust, the burning of crops, emissions from factories and the burning of coal and piles of garbage as the poor try to keep warm.
Over the past two years, New Delhi has earned the dubious distinction of being one of the world’s most polluted cities.
On Nov. 7 Belgium’s King Philippe and Queen Mathilde, in India on a weeklong state visit, inspected a military guard of honor at the sprawling presidential palace in New Delhi under a cover of smog that hampered visibility.
As the haze settled over the city in the morning, many people covered their faces and noses with scarves to try to protect themselves. Arvind Kejriwal, the capital’s top elected official, asked the education department to consider closing down schools.
The Indian Medical Association said New Delhi was in the midst of a “public health emergency” and appealed to the city government to halt sports and other outdoor activities in schools. The association also said the Delhi Half Marathon, scheduled for Nov. 19, was likely to leave those participating especially badly hit because the air quality is worst during the early part of the day, when the run takes place.
The sharp drop in air quality is most dangerous for the elderly, children and those already suffering from respiratory ailments. Constant exposure to pollution also reduces lung functionality for healthy adults over a period of time.
According to a recent report by the Lancet medical journal on the impact of pollution across the world, one out of every four premature deaths in India in 2015, or some 2.5 million, was attributed to pollution.
Delhi has struggled with putting in place pollution control measures over the last two years. It has tightened vehicle and factory emission norms and reduced the number of cars on the roads on the worst-hit days. But it’s had a hard time enforcing laws about crop burning, garbage fires and construction dust.
Kejriwal said on Twitter Nov. 7 that his government had written to ministers in the neighboring states of Punjab and Haryana demanding an end to crop burning there, but that little had been done.
“All of us together have to find a (solution) to this,” he tweeted, adding that the city becomes a “gas chamber for almost a month” every year.
IANS adds that Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia Nov. 7 said that air pollution in Delhi is "technically very close to severe, but not severe" even as he issued advisories, including the closing of all primary schools in the city Nov. 8.
However, experts say the situation is already severe, as the primary source of pollution here in Delhi and the National Capital Region – PM2.5 – was already beyond the severe level and preparedness is required on a war footing.
"Data from CPCB of PM10 at 4:30 in the evening, the latest report, was 436," Sisodia said addressing media Nov. 7 evening.
"Severe definition is above 500. But 436 is too close to 500, the situation is bad in Delhi and it is evident as Delhi looks like a gas chamber."
"Technically very close to be severe, but not severe," the deputy chief minister said.
The NCR Nov. 7 saw its worst air quality and smog situation of the year – even worse than the day after Diwali, as a yellow blanket of smog hung heavily in the sky.
The pollution level rose to dangerous levels, with 20 out of 21 active pollution monitoring stations recording "severe" air quality.
"PM2.5 is the major pollutant, its highest health impact on among all other pollutants. So we keep a close eye on it... As per Graded Response Action Plan, if PM2.5 remains above 300 for two consecutive days then it's already an emergency situation," Sumit Sharma, associate director, The Energy and Resources Institute told IANS.
"This is a very-very severe situation, pollution is extremely high... If we talk of long-term measures based on the scientific analysis, this situation shouldn't have arisen at the first place. Last year this happened and this year also its happening."
Delhi's Air Quality Index was 483 at 9:00 p.m., which is more than what was recorded the day after Diwali in both 2016 and 2017.
The average PM2.5 at the same time was 483, the highest PM2.5 was 626 - 25 times the permissible limit as per international standards, recorded at Mathura Road in South Delhi.
Meanwhile, Union Environment, Forest and Climate Change Minister Harsh Vardhan requested all state governments in the NCR to take effective steps to mitigate air pollution and bring air quality to acceptable levels.
He said every possible step required to tackle the situation has been identified and the need of the hour was to put them into action on the ground, which will yield significant results.