The Delhi government woke up after breathing toxic air since Diwali and announced a spate of “emergency” measures on Sunday — shutting down schools and halting all construction activities — to combat the crippling smog that has engulfed the Capital.
Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, who compared the city’s conditions with that of a gas chamber, held an emergency cabinet meeting before announcing the list of steps to tackle the air pollution that was worst in almost two decades on Sunday.
The Capital, which topped a 2014 World Health Organization list of cities with the foulest air, recorded an average level of PM2.5 — tiny particulate matter that can clog lungs — at nearly 600 micrograms per cubic meter on Sunday. That’s more than 60 times the level considered safe by the WHO and 10 times the government’s norms.
Anumitra Roychowdhury of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) compared the conditions with that of the 1952 Great Smog in London, which killed about 4,000 people.
The urgent measures announced on Sunday include shutting all schools — private and public — till Wednesday, a move that the Aam Aadmi Party government was forced to take after saying it was not necessary earlier in the week.
Anti-pollution experts, however, welcomed the decision to put construction projects on hold for at least five days, to temporarily shut the coal-fired power plant at Badarpur, which produces fly ash, and to vacuum clean and douse roads with water.
Another welcome step was a five-day ban on the use of all diesel-powered electricity generators, except at places such as hospitals and cellphone towers. The government also decided to enforce strictly a ban on the burning of leaves and garbage in the city.
The chief minister, who advised residents to stay indoors, said his AAP government could consider a proposal for artificial rain through cloud seeding.
“We have asked officials to work with the Centre and assess its possibility and effectiveness.”
The efficacy of cloud seeding is doubtful because such measures in pollution-hit Beijing have proved futile and highly expensive.
Pollution reached an alarming level in a large swathe of northern India as smog-related road accidents in Haryana killed at least nine people and injured 10 on national highway 24 in Uttar Pradesh’s Rampur.
The smog cover led to the cancellation of two Ranji Trophy matches — Bengal and Gujarat at Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium and Hyderabad versus Tripura at Karnail Singh Stadium in Delhi.
Weather officials and pollution monitoring agencies, however, held out hope, saying the overhanging grey smog could clear by Wednesday.
As people gasped for air, Kejriwal said: “Please stay indoors and try to work from home as much as possible.”
His government is also planning another round of the odd-even road rationing formula, which was tried before for two fortnights in January and April.
Delhi’s pollution levels shot up after Diwali on October 30. Smoke from firecrackers, vehicle and factory exhausts, and the burning of post-harvest stalks of paddy and other cereal plants in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab combined to make matters worse. Low wind speed and high humidity also blocked dispersal of pollutants.
Kejriwal blamed Delhi’s neighbours for choking the city and accused the Centre of doing little to curb the practice of farmers burning crop stubble.
But the Centre disagreed, saying 80% of the pollution was because of the litter the city generates. Union environment minister Anil Madhav Dave told news agency ANI that satellite images from ISRO show neighbouring states were responsible for only 20% of the pollution.
Haryana environment and industries minister Vipul Goel countered Kejriwal, saying the Delhi chief minister should not play politics over pollution and indulge in blame game. “We should work together to give the people a clean environment. Our government has come down hard on hundreds of farmers burning crop residue. The situation is being constantly monitored.”
For his part, Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, who facing a tough election next year, said farmers have been asked not to burn crop stubble.
“We have also given better farm equipment, which can help in cutting of crops in a better way but they do some or the other mistake.”
The Centre and Delhi lieutenant governor Najeeb Jung called meetings of officials on Monday to find ways to clear the city’s toxic air, which is posing a health risk to millions of people.
Hundreds of people, including children, on Sunday staged a protest in New Delhi over the worsening air quality, demanding immediate and effective steps from authorities.
(With inputs from HTC Chandigarh and agencies)