Toxic smog has turned India’s capital into a ‘gas chamber,’ environment minister says

Click to play video: 'Toxic smog blankets India’s capital, forcing closure of schools'
Toxic smog blankets India’s capital, forcing closure of schools
WATCH: Primary schools in New Delhi, India will be shut down starting Saturday, as the capital continued to be engulfed by high levels of air pollution, the local government said – Nov 4, 2022

Authorities in India are rolling out new measures and restrictions Friday to protect 20 million New Delhi residents from toxic smog that has blanketed the capital city, including shutting down primary schools, factories and construction sites and urging people to work from home.

Several key landmarks in the megacity remain nearly invisible behind a thick blanket of hazy, orange-grey smog that has peaked to its most hazardous level this week.

Commuters make their way past the presidential palace amid smoggy conditions in New Delhi on Nov. 3, 2022. Amarjeet Kumar Singh/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A combination of factors brings thick, poisonous smog to New Delhi’s doorstep each winter, including factory emissions, vehicle exhaust and smoke from farmers burning crop stubble (the remains left behind after harvesting). It’s a consistent issue that has far-reaching health implications for the city’s residents.

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A 2020 study from the Lancet Commission on pollution and health found that about 17,500 people died due to air pollution in Delhi in 2019. In the entire country, about 1.67 million deaths could be attributed to air pollution. Delhi is often ranked among the world’s most polluted cities.

A view of India Gate on a misty morning on Nov. 1, 2022 in New Delhi, India. Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Delhi’s 24-hour average air quality index (AQI), which measures levels of the most dangerous PM2.5 particles — very fine particles that can be easily inhaled, settle deep into the lungs, and even enter the bloodstream — crossed 470 on Friday, according to India’s Central Pollution Control Board.

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Concentrations over 300 AQI are deemed hazardous by the international AQI rating system, which warns of serious health effects at this level of pollution. On Friday, some parts of New Delhi were even recording more than 600 AQI.

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Click to play video: 'New Delhi government distributes anti-pollution masks to children due to dangerous smog'
New Delhi government distributes anti-pollution masks to children due to dangerous smog

In response to the public health crisis, Chief Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal announced that primary schools will be closed from Saturday onwards until “the pollution situation improves,” so that children can avoid going outside.

“No child should suffer in any way,” Kejriwal told reporters, according to AFP.

Authorities also restricted the use of diesel-powered vehicles and have deployed trucks equipped with water sprinklers and anti-smog guns to combat the dangerous haze.

Commuters ride past an anti-smog gun spraying water to curb air pollution amid heavy smog conditions in New Delhi on Nov. 4, 2022. Money SHARMA / AFP

Kejriwal has come under fire from residents and political opponents for his handling of the smog crisis, with many blaming farmers burning their crop stubble in the northern state of Punjab as driving the issue.

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Every year at the start of winter, tens of thousands of farmers in northern India set fire to what remains of their fields, in order to clear away crop stubble for the upcoming planting season. That smoke then wafts south to New Delhi, where calmer winter winds allow it to blanket the city.

Despite the practice being banned by India’s Supreme Court, farmers persist because it is a much cheaper option than collecting and transporting crop stubble for disposal.

A view of skyscrapers engulfed in dense smog on Nov. 3, 2022 in Noida, India. Sunil Ghosh/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

On Thursday, smoke from farm fires was responsible for a third of New Delhi’s air pollution, India’s air quality monitoring agency said.

Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav, a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), took aim at Chief Minister Kejriwal, a member of the opposition Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for failing to stop farmers from burning their crop stubble. The AAP is the governing party in both Delhi and Punjab.

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“There is no doubt over who has turned Delhi into a gas chamber,” Yadav said in a tweet.

Kejriwal called for an end to “blame games and finger-pointing” over the smog and farm fire issue.

“Farmers need solutions,” he said. “The day they get a solution, they will stop burning the stubble.”

Meanwhile, New Delhi’s residents aren’t likely to see any improvement to the smog any time soon, with weather conditions forecasted to remain calm.


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