Schools closed in New Delhi on Friday, while some diesel-powered vehicles were taken off the roads and much of the city’s relentless construction work was halted, as authorities tried to mitigate the effects of a thick haze of pollution which fell on the Indian capital. a calamity which has become an annual scourge.
Despite the mandates, and a call for people to stay at homethe measures brought little relief to the city’s millions of residents.
“Breathing becomes heavy and long,” said Ram Kumar, a 30-year-old from the town of Gorakhpur in India’s more rural north, who supports his family back home by driving a rickshaw. in New Delhi. “At the end of the day, I feel like I just smoked 20 or 25 cigarettes,” he noted, adding that he felt “poisonous smoke entering my chest.”
From a health perspective, the deadliest pollution contains the finest matter; Regularly breathing air contaminated with the smallest particles has been linked to cancer, diabetes and other life-shortening illnesses. In June, during Canada’s worst wildfire season, New York saw its skies turn orange from billowing smoke, with residents suffering from this type of pollution at a concentration of ‘approximately 117 micrograms per cubic meter. For comparison, on Friday afternoon in Delhi the average was around 500 people, reaching 643 in some places.
The cause of the intense annual air pollution that curses Delhi and most of northern India in early winter is difficult to determine. Falling temperatures appear to play an important role as cooler air settles into the region, trapping pollutants and preventing them from dispersing into the Himalayas. Vehicles are also a major component of this toxic mix, while dust from construction sites also contributes: for much of the last year, Mumbai on the west coast suffered from even worse air pollution serious than Delhi, which many attribute to this pollution. Mumbai’s recent construction mania.
But many scientists say one culprit is particularly responsible for Delhi’s smog: farmers burning rice stubble in Punjab, an agrarian state in the northwest. This practice is used as an inexpensive and effective way to clear mown fields after harvest, thus preparing them for the following year’s harvest.
By some measures, crop burning accounts for about 25 percent of pollution in Delhi; Satellite images showed more than a thousand such fires in Punjab state alone on Sunday.
But the problem is exacerbated by official dysfunctions. Although the same group, the opposition Aam Aadmi Party, rules both Delhi and Punjab, leaders in neither region have shown much capacity to tackle the problem. Authorities in Punjab may be reluctant to crack down on farmers to avoid alienating a significant voting bloc, while those in New Delhi have had little success in tackling urban pollution, particularly from vehicles.
The national government, based in Delhi and led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, appears equally powerless to negotiate improvements. The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Aam Aadmi are bitter rivals in the capital, with federal authorities having weakened much of the city administration’s powers. Several leaders of the capital region’s ruling party were also arrested and held without bail on various charges, including money laundering, moves that some observers described as politically motivated.
Jai Dhar Gupta, an environmental activist and air pollution consultant, lamented the inaction on pollution. Given the number of lives affected, he said, the terrible air quality “must be characterized as a public health emergency.” He denounced some official city efforts, such as dampening dust on streets to try to keep it stuck to the sidewalk, as woefully inadequate.
Without tackling the causes of pollution, Mr. Gupta said, there is little chance of improvement. “There is vehicular fuel burning, our waste burning, stubble burning, and many people in Delhi use biomass for cooking,” he noted. “You need to stop these emission sources.”
If local and national authorities “are unable to solve a predictable problem, then that is a failure of leadership,” he added.