‘Gas chamber’ Delhi orders schools closed due to smog nearly 30 times WHO safety level

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 November, 2017, 7:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 November, 2017, 8:48pm

India’s federal government on Wednesday urged Delhi and the surrounding northern states to immediately tackle dangerous levels of pollution in the capital that forced schools to close and sparked criticism of authorities.

Thick smog smothered Delhi, where pollution readings in some places peaked at 500, the most severe level on the government’s air quality index measuring the number of poisonous particles.

The US embassy website showed the concentration of PM 2.5, the microscopic particles that are the most damaging to health, topped 700 early on Wednesday morning – 28 times the WHO guidelines.

“Every possible step required to tackle the situation has been already identified, and the need of the hour is to put them into action,” Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan said in a message on Twitter.

Using the hashtag #DelhiSmog, Vardhan urged state authorities to rein in pollution, even if that meant deploying helicopters to spray jets of water across the city.

He also urged the surrounding states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to ban burning on farms, which is seen as a major contributor to the dirty air, along with high vehicle emissions and dust from building sites.

Firecrackers set off to celebrate last month’s Diwali festival of lights in the city added to the toxic mix.

Delhi has become a “gas chamber”, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said, as his government ordered schools closed until Sunday.

An estimated 5 million students are enrolled in nearly 6,000 government and public schools in the capital, according to official data.

Anti-pollution measures adopted by Delhi state government in recent years include limiting car use and taxing trucks that pass through the city, but few have succeeded.

Delhi’s air quality typically worsens before the onset of winter as cooler air traps pollutants near the ground and prevents them from dispersing into the atmosphere, a phenomenon known as inversion.

High levels of moisture in the air and a lack of wind mean emissions become trapped in the environment, according to India’s Central Pollution Control Board.

Last November, the city struggled with its worst pollution in nearly 20 years, which forced about a million children to miss school, while thousands of workers called in sick and queues formed outside shops selling face masks.

Residents are worried again this year. The Indian Medical Association has urged organisers to call off a half-marathon set for November 19 to protect runners and volunteers and urged administrators to “curb this menace”.

“When I came to Delhi in 1984, the air in the city was clean. But today when I left at 4am for work I could barely see anything,” said Jeevanand Joshi, a roadside tea seller. “This is not fog, this is smoke, and it is certainly making us sick.”

On Tuesday the Environment Pollution Authority, which was set up by the Supreme Court to tackle the issue, ordered the closure of dust-spewing brick kilns and an increase in parking fees to encourage the use of public transport.

“In terms of air pollution, things are expected to get much worse in the coming days,” Bhure Lal, head of the agency, said on Tuesday.

The state government must adopt long-term anti-pollution measures, such as improving public transport and banning the use of dirty industry fuel, said Anumita Roychowdhury of New Delhi’s Centre for Science and Environment.

“Without the systemic changes, the scope and impact of the emergency measures will be limited,” she added.

Reuters, Agence France-Presse