NEW DELHI – Air pollution in New Delhi and its surrounding towns reached the worst levels so far this year Sunday, with authorities in the world’s most polluted capital city having already declared a public health emergency and ordered schools closed.
The air quality index, measuring levels of PM 2.5, tiny particulate matter in the air, deteriorated to above 900, far above the 500 level that qualifies as “severe-plus.
Aside from the harm it was doing to the lungs of some 40 million people living in the capital region, the smog was so bad more than 30 flights were diverted from Indira Gandhi International Airport due to poor visibility.
Roads were nearly deserted as large numbers of people stayed home rather than expose themselves to the noxious atmosphere outside.
“Pollution has reached unbearable levels across north India,” Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s chief minister, said in a message on Twitter.
The government environment monitoring agency SAFAR warned that no relief was expected for the next one to two days as humidity resulting from unexpected light rains overnight had exacerbated pollution, already driven by higher seasonal crop stubble burning by farmers in the surrounding states.
“Wind speed is picking up and it could take 24 to 48 hours before the pollution level reduces to a level of around 500,” said Mahesh Palawat, vice president of Skymet, a private weather forecasting agency.
Anything above 400 on the AQI poses a risk for people with respiratory illness and can also affect even those with healthy lungs.
Doctors were reporting a spike in patients with respiratory-related issues, according to Sachin Taparia, head of Local Circles, a Delhi-based private consultancy that conducts surveys on government policies and programs.
“Delhi has turned into a gas chamber as the pollution levels hit the ‘severe+’ category,” Taparia said.
A survey of 17,000 people in the Delhi region by his consultancy found that 40 percent want to get out of the Delhi region because of the failure to control pollution.
Authorities in Delhi on Friday declared a public health emergency and closed schools and all construction activity.
Starting Monday, the city government is also restricting the use of private vehicles on the capital’s roads under an “odd-even” scheme based on license plates.
“The temporary restrictions on private vehicles will have a negligible impact as we face the most hazardous situation,” said Skymet’s Palawat.
Delhi’s Kejriwal and the chief ministers from the neighboring states of Punjab and Haryana urged the federal government to do more to combat the pollution.
According to a lawyer, the Supreme Court was expected to hear a petition from the environment agency looking for ways to make state governments take tougher action against farmers to curb the stubble-burning. Politicians have been reluctant to upset their farming constituencies.
According to SAFAR, satellite pictures have captured more than 3,000 incidents of stubble burning last week in neighboring states, contributing to 44 percent of Delhi’s pollution.