Delhi has earned the unenviable distinction of becoming the most air polluted city on Earth this month, as air quality has reached epically bad proportions.
On November 8, pollution surged so high that some monitoring stations reported an Air Quality Index of 999, way above the upper limit of the worst category, Hazardous. To gain some perspective on this, Baoding, China’s most polluted city was at 298 on Monday. The World Air Quality Index recorded the quality level at Chandrapur, in Maharashtra, to be 824, making it the second most polluted city following the capital.
The Indian Medical Association said the country’s capital was suffering a health emergency and called for an upcoming half-marathon to be cancelled to avoid “disastrous health consequences”.
United Airlines canceled its flights to India’s capital because of poor air quality. Visibility was so bad that cars crashed in pileups on highways and trains had to be delayed and canceled. Residents were warned to avoid leaving their homes as smog enveloped streets and landmarks on Tuesday, sparking road, rail and airport delays and renewed calls for Indian state and federal governments to act.
Research released earlier this year found that air quality levels exceed World Health Organization’s guidelines for 80% of those living in urban areas around the world. With increased awareness and warnings from the government, shops in one of Delhi’s trendiest areas-Khan market that was selling specialised anti-pollution masks, saw a rise in business as people lined up to buy protection against the smog.
The government released an emergency ruling asking schools to be shut for three days and construction work to be halted for five days. Officials stated that the number of vehicles allowed on the street may be curbed if the situation does not abate.
Delhi’s chief minister went as far as to call his city a “gas chamber”:
Delhi has become a gas chamber. Every year this happens during this part of year. We have to find a soln to crop burning in adjoining states
— Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) November 7, 2017
So why did it get so bad in Delhi this year? Turns out this oppressive smog is a pungent combination of an ancient farming technique and the residues of modern urban living. But the Indian government has also failed to find ways to control the well-understood sources of pollution, which has allowed the situation to grow progressively worse over time.
In fact, much of the pollution is coming from farms in nearby states of Punjab, Haryana, and Western Uttar Pradesh. With the rice harvest over, farmers are burning crop stubble — specifically the remnants of the rice crop to prepare the fields to plant wheat and return nutrients to the soil.
The World Health Organization projects that air pollution will continue to be a major killer in years to come, and the world’s poorest will be left gasping.
But in Delhi, life still sputters on. The Delhi half-marathon had a record turnout over the weekend with some of the 34,000 runners showing up to the starting line wearing masks.
The government is failing to control the pollution, which is leading to popular unrest. Protests have erupted out of anger with the government for failing to deal with the air pollution. Hundreds of people, including children whose schools were closed, took to the streets earlier in the month.
The World Health Organisation in 2014 classed Delhi as the world’s most polluted capital, with air quality levels worse than Beijing. A 2015 study showed about half the Indian capital’s 4.4 million schoolchildren had compromised lung capacity and would never totally recover. For the moment, it doesn’t look like the whole city will recover from this crisis anytime soon.