Schools closed in New Delhi on Friday, while some diesel-burning vehicles were ordered off the roads and much of the city’s incessant construction was halted, as the authorities tried to mitigate the effects of a thick haze of pollution that has descended on India’s capital, a calamity that has come to be an annual blight.
Despite the mandates, and an appeal to people to stay indoors, the measures provided little relief for the city’s many millions of residents.
“Breathing becomes heavy and long,” said Ram Kumar, a 30-year-old from the city of Gorakhpur, in the more rural north of India, who supports his family back home by driving an auto-rickshaw in New Delhi. “At the end of the day, it feels like I have just smoked 20 or 25 cigarettes,” he noted, adding that he feels the “poisonous smoke going inside my chest.”
In health terms, the deadliest pollution contains the finest matter; regularly breathing air contaminated with those tiniest of particles has been linked to cancer, diabetes and other life-shortening conditions. In June, during Canada’s worst-ever wildfire season, New York saw its skies turn orange from the smoke that wafted over, with residents suffering from that type of pollution at a concentration of about 117 micrograms per cubic meter. By comparison, on Friday afternoon in Delhi, the average was around 500, reaching 643 in some places.
The cause of the intense annual air pollution that curses Delhi and most of northern India at the start of winter is difficult to determine. Falling temperatures appear to play a large part as cooler air settles on the region, trapping pollutants and preventing them from dispersing over the Himalayas. Vehicles are also a major component of the toxic stew, while dust from building sites also contributes — for much of the past year, Mumbai, on the west coast, has suffered even worse air pollution than Delhi, which many have put down to Mumbai’s recent mania for construction.
But many scientists say that one culprit is particularly to blame for the Delhi smog: farmers burning rice stubble in Punjab, an agrarian state to the northwest. That practice is employed as a cheap and effective way of clearing mowed fields after harvest, preparing them for next year’s crop.
According to some measures, crop burning accounts for about 25 percent of the pollution over Delhi; satellite images showed more than a thousand such fires burning in Punjab State alone on Sunday.
But the problem is exacerbated by official dysfunction. Although the same group, the opposition Aam Aadmi Party, runs both Delhi and Punjab, the leaders of neither region have shown much ability to tackle the issue. The authorities in Punjab may be reluctant to crack down on the farmers to avoid alienating an important voting bloc, while those in New Delhi have had little success in tackling urban pollution, especially from vehicles.
The national government, based in Delhi and run by the Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has seemed equally powerless to broker improvements. The Bharatiya Janata Party and Aam Aadmi are bitter rivals in the capital, with the federal authorities having weakened much of the city administration’s powers. Several leaders of the capital region’s governing party have also been arrested and detained without bail on various charges, including money laundering, moves that some observers have described as politically motivated.
Jai Dhar Gupta, an environmental activist and consultant on air pollution, lamented the inaction on pollution. With the number of lives affected, he said, the dreadful air quality “needs to be called the public health emergency that it is.” He denounced some of the city’s official efforts, such as dampening the dust on streets to try to keep it stuck to the pavement, as woefully inadequate.
Without combating the causes of the pollution, Mr. Gupta said, little was likely to improve. “There is vehicular fuel combustion, our waste-burning combustion, stubble-burning combustion, and many people in Delhi use biomass for cooking,” he noted. “You have to arrest those sources of emission.”
If the local and national authorities “are not able to solve a predictable problem, then it is a failure of leadership,” he added.