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New Delhi’s toxic haze makes city ‘a gas chamber,’ official says

Air pollution officially classified as severe has blanked New Delhi in a toxic smog, prompting the closing of schools and the cancellation of flights.
Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images
Air pollution officially classified as severe has blanked New Delhi in a toxic smog, prompting the closing of schools and the cancellation of flights.

NEW DELHI — The toxic haze blanketing New Delhi was so severe on Tuesday that politicians announced plans to close schools, flights were delayed, and the chief minister of Delhi state said the city had “become a gas chamber.”

For Arvind Kumar, a chest surgeon, the situation is adding to a growing health crisis in the region. “I don’t see pink lungs even among healthy nonsmoking young people,” he said Tuesday. “The air quality has become so bad that even if you are a nonsmoker you are still suffering.”

The thick, acrid fog is not new to Delhi, where it settles around this time every year, covering the capital in vehicle emissions and smoke from the burning of crops in neighboring states and from fireworks from Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. But in recent years, the problem appears to have worsened.

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On Tuesday, levels of the most dangerous air particles, called PM 2.5, reached more than 700 micrograms per cubic meter in parts of the city, according to data from the US Embassy. Experts say that prolonged exposure to such high concentrations of PM 2.5 is equivalent to smoking more than two packs of cigarettes a day.

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Officials have struggled to control pollution in the National Capital Region, which includes Delhi and is home to more than 45 million people. A ban on the sale of firecrackers before Diwali in October appeared to keep the problem in check, but the illegal burning of crops, which contributes significantly to pollution at this time of the year, has just started.

The situation prompted the state’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, to say on Twitter: “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.”

Imran Hussain, the environment minister of Delhi, said on Twitter in August that he had written to officials in the states of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh requesting a reduction in agricultural fires, but no action had been taken, a government spokesman said on Twitter on Tuesday.

The fires, combined with car exhaust, smokestack emissions, and the burning of garbage, contribute to pollution levels that often hover in the “severe” category, the highest level designated by the Central Pollution Control Board.

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An article last month in the medical journal The Lancet said pollution was responsible for up to 2.5 million deaths in India in 2015, more than in any other country.

Manish Sisodia, deputy chief minister of Delhi, said “all options” for reducing pollution were being considered. The government has suggested reintroducing an alternate-days limit on the use of private cars, and using helicopters to sprinkle water to help clear the air.

At a news conference late Tuesday, Sisodia announced that classes at primary schools would be suspended on Wednesday, and possibly longer. Last year, the government temporarily closed more than 1,800 schools after a string of especially polluted days.

Dr. Sarath K. Guttikunda, an air pollution specialist and the director of the independent research group Urban Emissions, said that keeping children at home could reduce their exposure to air pollution, especially in areas where vehicle emissions are high.

But Kumar, the chest surgeon, said he was unconvinced by the government’s approach to curbing pollution. The problem would continue, he added, unless the city’s residents put greater collective pressure on politicians to devise sustainable solutions.

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“The options for Delhi residents are three,” Kumar said. “One is to stop breathing. That is not possible. Second is to quit Delhi. That is also not possible. Third is to make the right to breathe fresh air a people’s movement.”