In India, Air So Dirty Your Head Hurts


In some parts of the city, the levels of PM 2.5 — insidiously small particles that can settle deep in the lungs — had climbed to more than 700 micrograms per cubic meter, which is considered hazardous to breathe, according to data provided by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee. Scientists estimate these particles have killed millions.

Sadly accustomed to toxic air, many of Delhi’s people are donning masks of one sort or another. It’s not unusual to see a man whizzing by on a motorcycle with a T-shirt wrapped over most of his face. On Wednesday, we saw one young woman standing on a sidewalk clutching a clump of her long dark hair over her mouth to act as a veil.

Photo

Children on their way to school. On Wednesday, the authorities said they were shuttering thousands of primary schools in Delhi at least until Monday.

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Sajjad Hussain/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Hanging low and thick, the smog looks like a blend of white smoke and fog. It is a combination of vehicle emissions, industrial pollution and smoke from crop burning in nearby farming areas. The colder weather at this time of year packs the pollution together, making it even worse.

The smog is so heavy that drivers often can’t see cars slowing down in front of them, causing serious accidents and several highway pileups.

The problem seems to be spinning further out of control as India’s government struggles to get in front of it. The decentralized governance system here complicates things because the rural areas burning the crops fall under different jurisdictions than the urban areas suffering the smog.

In a statement released on Wednesday, Mr. Sisodia said the air pollution had “engulfed the city.” Pollution levels will be reassessed over the weekend, he said, and a decision made about whether schools should remain closed for longer.

For now, more than four million children are getting a long holiday.

It is widely believed they will be safer staying at home than going to and from school on polluted streets, though most homes in Delhi do not have a single air filter.

Officials said this was the first time so many schools would be closed for this many days. Air pollution levels this year are on par with ones recorded in the city last November, when the Indian government closed 1,800 primary schools for three days.

Last year, visibility conditions from the fog dropped to a 17-year low at Indira Gandhi International Airport. Newspaper stories from then read almost identical to those today, down to stories about car pileups on the highway.

On Wednesday evening, Delhi officials decided to halt some construction projects — to reduce airborne dust — and ban some classes of heavy trucks from entering the city.

Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, has called Delhi “a gas chamber.”

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