New Delhi: Traffic restrictions and schools closing due to smog

People walking in smog
According to WHO estimates, seven million people die prematurely each year as a result of air pollution. There is currently thick fog in New Delhi (photo from 4 November). (Source: IMAGO / Hindustan Times)

Due to ongoing air pollution, the Indian capital, New Delhi, will restrict traffic this coming week. Schools have already been closed.

The air quality in the metropolis of Delhi, which also includes the capital, New Delhi, has already reached critical levels this past week. Now the capital city wants to take action against the increasing smog by restricting traffic. Starting next week, private cars may only be used depending their license plate. Cars with license plates ending even or odd numbers will drive on alternate days as Gopal Rai, Minister for Environment, announced on Monday. For now, these measures will be in effect until 20 November. According to the German Press Agency, this regulation is usually implemented in the capital when air pollution is particularly bad.

Primary schools remain closed for the time being

Additionally, primary schools were initially closed for two days in the city already at the end of last week. These measures have now been extended until 10 November. Students in higher grades are to attend courses online. An exception is only to be made for students in 10th and 12th grade who need to prepare for upcoming, important exams, Rai announced.

At the moment, construction sites must also be shut down due to the air pollution in the megametropolis. Furthermore, the city administration is having vehicles sprinkle water which should settle dust.

The fine dust pollution in and around New Delhi is one of the highest in the world – and is particularly intense in winter.

According to the Swiss company, IQAir, that monitors air quality globally, the “Air Quality Index” of the metropolis reached a level of over 400 on Tuesday afternoon – and therefore was put into the “hazardous” category.

Based on data from US authorities, a value between 0 and 50 is good and a value above 100 is already unhealthy. Initially, this only affects specific groups of people. The risk of health effects is increased for all people starting at values above 200. Values above 301 are considered as “hazardous”.

According to IQAir, the concentration of fine particles (PM 2.5) was about 60 times over the threshold set by the World Health Organization (WHO), which actually stipulates a maximum exposure of 5 micrograms per cubic meter. Fine particles labelled as PM 2.5 are those with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres. These particles can partly penetrate into the pulmonary alveoli and the bloodstream. Among other things, long-term exposure to fine particles can also lead to cardiovascular diseases and lung cancer.

WHO lowered the recommended threshold in 2021 because studies showed how much air pollution affects health. Next to climate change, air pollution is one of the largest environmental threats for human health, according to the organisation.

Based on a study by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, air pollution could lower the life expectancy of Indians by up to to nine years.

Farmers burn remaining crops

The triggers for the smog in New Delhi and surrounding area include exhaust from automobiles, industry as well as dust from construction sites and waste incineration. Furthermore, farmers in surrounding states are currently burning their remaining crops despite a ban so that they can cultivate plants again quickly and cost-effectively.

Additionally, the important Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, is happening this weekend and many people will celebrate with fireworks despite the air pollution.

Ann Harrison, Amnesty International’s Climate Advisor, explains that the current situation in Delhi did not happen without warning signs – it is due to the government’s “repeated failure to protect” and people from exposure and would risk violating human rights to life and health.

She said: “Climate change and air quality are inextricably linked as the same pollutants that cause climate change harm air quality – putting at risk people’s rights to life and to health, as well as the right to a healthy environment.” Additionally, she criticised that population groups like daily-wage labourers or those with less access to healthcare are particularly affected by the risks. According to media reports (German article) many inhabitants of New Delhi are currently suffering from respiratory problems, coughing or headaches.

Harrison called on the Indian government as well as local governments to become more involved in order to implement their plan of action against pollution. (dpa / js)