New Delhi, the capital of India, found itself engulfed in a dense, hazardous smog on Friday, leading to the closure of several schools as the air quality index (AQI) plummeted to the worst recorded levels among major cities worldwide.
A combination of factors, including lower temperatures, stagnant winds, and the burning of crop stubble in neighboring agricultural states, contributed to a sharp increase in air pollutants, according to officials.
The city’s population of 20 million experienced discomfort, with complaints of eye irritation, itchy throats, and a thick gray atmosphere as the AQI hovered around 480 at certain monitoring stations. To put this in perspective, an AQI of 0-50 is considered good, while a range of 400 to 500 poses a significant risk to healthy individuals and endangers those with pre-existing health conditions.
Local doctor Aheed Khan shared concerns about the health impact, stating, “In my last 24 hours of duty, I saw babies coughing, children coming in with distress and rapid breathing.”
Recreational areas like Lodhi Garden and India Gate, typically popular with joggers, witnessed fewer visitors, as reported by a witness from Reuters.
In response to the deteriorating air quality, residents rushed to purchase air purifiers. Some service centers for these devices reported shortages of new filters, with fresh stocks anticipated to arrive on Monday. Unfortunately, authorities did not foresee any immediate improvement in air quality.
Ashwani Kumar, chairman of the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, noted that the elevated pollution levels were expected to persist for the next two to three weeks. This situation was exacerbated by incidents of crop stubble burning, slow wind speeds, and the onset of cooler temperatures.
Farmers in the northern states of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh commonly burn crop waste after the October harvest to clear their fields in preparation for winter crops. This agricultural practice has long been a contributor to the region’s air pollution problem.
The worsening air quality also cast a shadow over India’s hosting of the cricket World Cup, with Mumbai, the financial capital, experiencing a spike in pollution levels.
On Friday, New Delhi claimed the unenviable position of topping a real-time list of the world’s most polluted cities, compiled by Swiss group IQAir, with an AQI categorizing the city’s air as “hazardous” at 611.
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While primary schools in New Delhi were closed for Friday and Saturday, those in the suburbs remained open. Children were required to dust off their masks, which had been unused since the Covid-19 pandemic, and wear them as they boarded school buses.