NEW DELHI, INDIA - Officials in the Indian capital shut down schools, halted construction activity and closed a coal-fired power plant temporarily as alarm bells were sounded about the deadly haze of air pollution that has shrouded the city this past week.
The emergency measures came amid rising calls for an urgent response to dangerous pollutants in New Delhi’s hazardous air which have spiked more than thirty times the safe limits set by the World Health Organization.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced Sunday schools will be shut for three days, all construction halted for five days and a power plant will be closed for ten days. He said roads will be doused with water to settle dust that is a huge contributor to the city’s toxic air.
Although the Indian capital is counted among cities with the world’s dirtiest air, the situation turned particularly dire this week. Buildings have been shrouded in a grey smog and visibility on the streets has been low. Television channels are running campaigns called #Right to Breathe# and #Help me Breathe#, while social media is abuzz with messages about how to combat the deadly pollution in a city many referred to as a gas chamber.
Delhi’s high levels of pollution are blamed on a toxic mix of dust, fumes from diesel vehicles, and burning of waste. Compounding the problem at this time of the year are fires set to millions of tons of crop waste by farmers in neighboring states, which send black plumes of smoke towards Delhi.
Exploding firecrackers during the annual Festival of Lights last Sunday made the air quality deteriorate further.
The situation worsens in winter when still winds do not help the thick smog to disperse.
As many people hunkered indoors to avoid exposure to the deadly air, many questioned if the measures taken by the government were too little, too late.
An advocacy group in New Delhi, the Center of Science and Environment (CSE), has long called on Delhi’s authorities to take emergency action to pull down pollution levels when they peak to dangerous levels.
Anumita Roychowdhury, Executive Director, Research and Advocacy at CSE, says several cities in the world have plans to combat severe smog episodes. “If I give you the example of Beijing, if for three subsequent days you have red alerts, them immediately you shut down power plants, manufacturing units,” she said.
The Indian capital only acted after it was choked for six straight days.
Roychowdhury said they have also been asking the government to issue daily health alerts. “Children and those who are suffering from cardiac and respiratory problems should be advised to stay indoors and that is absolutely necessary, to protect public health.”
Chief Minister Kejriwal also called on neighboring states to enforce laws against burning agricultural waste as this is a significant contributor to pollution.
However, the head of Environmental Pollution Authority, Bhure Lal, was skeptical of immediate results. “Ample amount of awareness campaign has been taken, but it is not producing any impact. The farmers are habituated to burning it rather than using it,” he lamented.
How can the situation improve? Calling the situation bleak, Bhure Lal shrugs in despair. “Urgent solutions are needed and the most urgent solution is kindly ask God to [send] rain, or let their be a thunderstorm here. It will clear out.”
India has four of the world's 10 cities with the worst air pollution according to the WHO. New Delhi ranks 11th.