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03.11.2019 Asia

India declares unprecedented air pollution emergency in Delhi

By Murali Krishnan in New Delhi - RFI
REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis
NOV 3, 2019 ASIA

Schools in the Indian capital have been shut until early in the week due to alarming levels of pollution, with authorities declaring an unprecedented public health emergency in New Delhi and nearby areas.

Residents woke up to worsening smog Sunday as air quality dipped to the season's lowest. The capital remained shrouded in a hazardous, thick layer of haze for a fifth consecutive day as farm fires from New Delhi's neighbouring states sent swathes of smoke into the capital, adding to the pollution.

The air quality index (AQI) was recorded at an alarming 650 in the morning by one of the two government pollution monitors. An index of 500 is considered a “severe-plus emergency”.

“It is like a gas chamber and we hope the air clears soon. But if the burning of farm stubble continues in the adjacent states of Punjab and Haryana it will just worsen,” Delhi's chief minister Arvind Kejriwal told RFI.

A large number of the city's residents wore masks for morning walks and traffic was sparse on the roads. A drizzle on Saturday night increased humidity, which increases the air's capacity to hold pollutants.

Many flights have been diverted from Delhi airport due to low visibility caused by the smog.

Every year during the months of November and December, farmers in the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana burn crops to clear their fields. It's made worse by the fireworks during the Hindu festival of Diwali that turn its skies a putrid yellow.

This year the situation is worse, with stubble burning more widespread. Other contributing factors including construction dust, factory and vehicle emissions.

Spike in hospital admissions
Hospitals have reported a surge in the number of patients suffering from respiratory and breathing complications, with doctors advising residents, especially children and the elderly, to stay indoors.

“Patients are coming with complaints of watery eyes, cough, breathing difficulty, allergy, exacerbation of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD)," Randeep Guleria of the All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences said.Delhi is hoping for favourable meteorological conditions to blow away the toxic air, as health experts warn some 20 million residents are at serious risk.

Starting Monday, the Delhi government is to enforce an odd-even scheme on the capital's roads, alternating all non-transport vehicles with odd and even number plates each day, for 10 days.

There are nearly 10 million vehicles plying the roads of New Delhi.