Toxic smog thickens, hits normal life in India, Pakistan

Published: Updated:

Delhi’s government on Wednesday ordered schools shut for the rest of the week as air pollution worsened and criticism mounted over the failure of Indian authorities to tackle the public health crisis.

Thick smog swathed Delhi, where pollution readings in some places peaked at 500, the most severe level on the government’s air quality index measuring the number of poisonous particles.

On the other side of the border, large swathes of Punjab in Pakistan remain engulfed in toxic smog. Air quality indicators show high levels of particulate matter, with breathing conditions in urban areas ranging from highly unhealthy to very hazardous.

According to a Dawn news report, readings from Lahore taken in the last week of October indicate the level of carbon monoxide at 21.29 milligram per meter (mpm) on Mall Road, 17.52 in Mohlanwal, and 6.94 in Gulberg’s Liberty Market. The maximum permissible limit under World Health Organization guidelines is 5 mpm.

Public outcry

This year, public outcry over the issue has been far more amplified. Citizens of Lahore are using social media to pressurize provincial and local government bodies. There is considerable urgency on part of the affected population as they try to get the government to deal with the issue as a public health emergency.

“The air quality in Delhi is deteriorating. We cannot compromise with the health of children at this stage,” said Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, ordering the closure until Sunday.

The Delhi administration, which described the city as a “gas chamber”, had previously ordered schools for young children to close only for Wednesday. Anti-pollution measures adopted by the Delhi state government in recent years include limiting car use and taxing trucks that pass through the city, but few have succeeded.

Dangerous levels

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s federal government also urged Delhi and the surrounding northern states to immediately tackle dangerous levels of pollution in the capital, even if that meant deploying helicopters to spray jets of water.

“Every possible step required to tackle the situation has been already identified, and the need of the hour is to put them into action,” federal Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan wrote on social network Twitter, using the hashtag "#DelhiSmog".

Vardhan also urged the surrounding states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to ban burning on farms, which is seen as a major contributor to the dirty air, along with high vehicle emissions and dust from construction sites. The Delhi government said it had sought meetings with state ministers to discuss the burning, provoking protest from many who saw the measure as being too little and too late.

Worst in 20 years

“Nobody seems to get the gravity of the problem,” said Dr Naresh Trehan, the chairman and managing director of the Medanta Heart Institute.

Last November, Delhi’s worst pollution in nearly 20 years forced about a million children to miss school, while thousands of workers reported sick and people queued to buy face masks. Residents are worried this year as well. The Indian Medical Association has urged organizers to call off Delhi's biggest race set for Nov. 19, to protect runners and volunteers.

If pollution increases, emergency measures, such as the suspension of construction activity, will kick in, the Delhi government has said. Long-term measures, such as improving public transport and banning the use of dirty industry fuel, are required, said Anumita Roychowdhury of New Delhi's Centre for Science and Environment.

“Without the systemic changes, the scope and impact of the emergency measures will be limited,” she added.

(With Reuters, Dawn inputs)