Delhi Urged to Declare Emergency After Third Day of Heavy Pollution

CNN/ Newswire | 11/8/2017, 7:20 a.m.
The Delhi government is being urged to declare a city-wide health emergency, as residents endured a third straight day of ...
Indian visitors walk through the courtyard of Jama Masjid amid heavy smog in the old quarters of New Delhi on November 8, 2017.

By Huizhong Wu, CNN

(CNN) -- The Delhi government is being urged to declare a city-wide health emergency, as residents endured a third straight day of heavy pollution.

Air quality readings in India's capital have soared since Tuesday, with one monitor showing levels in the city were 969 -- the World Health Organization considers anything above 25 to be unsafe.

Those levels are based on the concentration of fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, per cubic meter. The microscopic particles, which are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, are considered particularly harmful because they are small enough to lodge deep into the lungs and pass into other organs, causing serious health risks.

Officials scrambled to provide a response as TV stations looped video of reporters taking live pollution readings amid a background of thick smog. On the street, residents tied scarfs across their faces as makeshift masks.

On Wednesday, the Delhi government took the unusual step of closing all schools until Sunday, but has so far resisted calls from the Indian Medical Association to declare a public health emergency, and enact more sweeping measures, such as temporarily banning cars from the roads.

The smog has blanketed much of the city in recent days, severely reducing visibility, restricting traffic and delaying flights. Mahesh Sharma, a government minister in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, has blamed the unusually high pollution levels on a lack of wind and change in humidity levels.

Among the world's most polluted cities

Every winter, pollution levels in Delhi and its neighboring cities rise.

Delhi was named the most polluted city in the world in 2014 according to the WHO. Since then, other Indian cities have climbed up the list, knocking Delhi's ranking down to 14.

"Delhi has become a gas chamber. Every year this happens during this part of year," Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi's chief minister, tweeted. "We have to find a solution to crop burning in adjoining states."

Politicians and officials blame farmers in neighboring northern Indian states who clear their fields by burning their crops. The landlocked capital sits in a natural bowl and is surrounded by industrial and agricultural hubs. Without the coastal breeze of cities such as Mumbai and Chennai, much of the pollution settles.

Every year, farmers across fertile neighboring states set fire to their fields to clear them for the next season. Known as stubble burning, millions of tons of crop residue are set alight releasing untold amounts of particulate matter into the environment.

In addition to the crop burning, Delhi's pollution comes from industrial emissions, vehicle exhaust from cars, road dust and burning of biomass, said Santosh Harish, assistant director of research at EPIC India, a research institute based in the US and India.

A report by the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur carried out in 2014 found that vehicle omissions accounted for 20% of Delhi's annual PM2.5 levels.

Nevertheless, the number of cars on the city's roads has continued to rise. According to government statistics, the total number of vehicles in Delhi exceeded 10 million for the first time in 2016.