A week on from Diwali, the thick brown smog that shrouded the city after the festival has shown no sign of shifting. On Friday a public health emergency was declared and Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said the city had turned into a “gas chamber”.
By Sunday the air quality had deteriorated further, with the air quality index measuring over 900 in some areas, far exceeding the level of 25 deemed safe by the WHO, and well above even the 500 mark deemed “severe plus”.
Visibility became so bad that more than 30 flights were redirected from Delhi airport. “Pollution has reached unbearable levels,” said Kejriwal.
Sachin Mathur, 31, an auto-rickshaw driver in north-west Delhi, said he had to stay outside for work and he had been struggling to breathe and could barely keep his eyes open on the roads.
“I have been driving auto on Delhi roads for the last three years and every year this time after Diwali, Delhi becomes like this,” Mathur said. “I am suffering from a throat infection and my eyes are burning. The pollution means I do not get many passengers, so going to a doctor is not affordable.”
The air pollution crisis is now an annual tradition in Delhi at this time of year, owing to a toxic mixture of smoke from celebration firecrackers, the burning of crop stubble by farmers in the neighbouring regions of Punjab and Haryana, and a cold shift in temperatures locking in the fumes.
On Sunday the government environment monitoring agency Safar said there would no relief for at least another two days because of rain and humidity.
Schools have been closed until at least Tuesday, construction work has been ordered to stop and the government has organised for 5m masks to be handed out. From Monday the city will begin a trial run of a scheme in which cars with odd and even numbered licence plates can drive on alternate days.
Many in Delhi say far stronger measures are needed, particularly to stop the main culprit, crop burning. Satellite imaging showed more than 3,000 incidents of stubble burning in neighbouring states last week. The practice is estimated to cause 44% of Delhi’s pollution.
Rachel Rao, the vice-principal of Queen Mary’s school in Delhi, said they had limited outdoor activities for pupils. “Over the past 10 years the situation has been getting worse. We never used to see pollution like this,” said Rao. “The past few days have been absolutely awful. We have seen many of our pupils falling sick and complaining of having difficulty breathing.
“Before Diwali, we tried to spread awareness among our students about not burning firecrackers, in the hope they would bring that message back home. But the Delhi government, the Punjab government, the Haryana government and the central government should be coming up with better solutions rather than just blaming each other for the problem.”
Neeraj Sharma, 45, a businessman, said his 16-year-old son, a professional athlete, had been forced to stop his training this week because the pollution levels made it impossible to exercise.
“It is very difficult to breathe in this weather, there is a bitter taste in the air,” said Sharma. “I think the government is very superficial in their approach to pollution control. For the last five years the Delhi government did nothing, but now, as an election is approaching, they are acting as if they are concerned. The Delhi government said they banned crackers in Delhi, so how come so many of them were bursting all over Delhi during Diwali? If you ask me, nothing will change, the situation will continue to go from bad to worse.”
Hospitals in the capital reported a surge in patients coming in with respiratory issues. Dr Sai Kiran Chaudhary, the head of pulmonology at the Delhi Heart & Lung Institute hospital, said people had become much more aware about the dangers of pollution in the past two years, with masks becoming a common sight and people staying indoors.
“Everything, from increased construction, increased urbanisation, increased number of cars on the road and a reduction of green spaces, is making this problem worse every year,” said Chaudhary. “So many people are losing their lives.”
According to a UN report, 14 out of 15 of the world’s most polluted cities are in India. The long-term health implications of living with this air were laid bare in a study by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago released on Thursday, which found that the life expectancy of people living in the Indian states of Bihar, Chandigarh, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal has reduced by up to seven years due to pollution.