The Indian metropolis of Delhi, and its population of 27 million, faces a grave danger. It’s stopping trains and planes dead in their tracks. It’s blinding drivers and causing disasters on the highways. Moreover, it’s killing millions – slowly, but surely. The threat isn’t an atomic attack, or a devastating storm. It’s a cloud of smog so thick with pollution that breathing it is like smoking 50 cigarettes in a day.
The crisis began on Tuesday, November 7, 2017 as people woke up to a greyer, hazier world. It’s also a more dangerous world. The smog is filled with particulate matter (PM) 2.5 air pollution. Inhaling too much of those particles can cause lung cancer and other respiratory diseases, among other ailments. In the short term, people are complaining of constant headaches and burning eyes.
Most aren’t fazed at this point – apparently, this has been happening for some years now. However, this year’s seemingly seasonal smog contains far more particulate matter (PM) 2.5 air pollution than any before it. The PM 2.5 smog levels are about 30 or 40 times higher than the World Health Organization’s safe limit. Delhi just surpassed Beijing and Mexico City as the city with the most dangerous atmosphere.
The Present Danger
On Tuesday, the Delhi State government closed all primary schools. The following morning, Manish Sisodia, state deputy chief minister, ordered the closing of all remaining schools, public and private. According to The New York Times, Sisodia did this after driving past a school bus while two children vomited out the window. The current plan states that schools will stay closed until Sunday, November 12. Prince Charles and wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, had to cancel a school visit on an inopportunely-timed trip to Delhi.
Unfortunately, staying indoors can be just as toxic as staying outdoors for millions of impoverished and lower-class citizens. Sales on air filters and face masks are skyrocketing, but they’re only going to those who can afford them. Worse, market vendors and rickshaw drivers make their living outdoors. They can’t afford to stay in, especially if there’s no way for them to keep out the rotten air. Many can only wrap a scarf, or even their long hair, over their mouths and noses.
Meanwhile, social media posts from local users indicate vehicle collision in the city’s roads and highways. Planes at Indira Gandhi International Airport are grounded and trains are delayed. Visibility is reportedly low. On Thursday, as air quality grew even worse, the city government officially declared a state of emergency. Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s chief minister, put it bluntly on Twitter: “Delhi has become a gas chamber.”
What Created the Smog?
According to Prof. Ajit Tyagi, President of the Indian Meteorological society, number of factors all contributed to the cause of these conditions. Foremost to him is the burning of rice stubble in the neighboring territories of Punjab, Haryana, and Western Uttar Pradesh. In October, rice farmers harvest the crop and find themselves with millions of acres of straw that livestock can’t digest. With a need to clear the field quickly so they can sow wheat, they resort to burning the remaining stubble.
Kejriwal also puts this factor first among others. In the same tweet as his “gas chamber” remark, he advocated the need for “a soln [solution] to crop burning in adjoining states.”
Delhi has become a gas chamber. Every year this happens during this part of year. We have to find a soln to crop burning in adjoining states
— Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) November 7, 2017
However, stubble burning is not the only thing at work in this crisis. Tyagi also mentions dust pollution from intense construction work, car exhaust, and garbage dumps. Diwali, a crucial Hindu holiday, also plays a significant part. Thousands of families drive or fly in to celebrate with relatives, leading to more traffic and more car exhaust. Festivities also include fireworks, creating more smoke than usual. This holiday happened in October 19, but only now do people see its effects.
Um, Could It Really Be Just Some Pollution?
All these factors could not have combined into an environmental catastrophe on their own, or even together. Weather conditions themselves proved ideal, if you can call it that, for this combination to be so hazardous. Al Jazeera reports, “We are approaching what is known as the ‘fog season’. This occurs as the northeasterly monsoon draws in cool, dry air from the Himalayas.” They add that the cooler, denser air of the season means higher air pressure. This “acts like a lid on the atmosphere and traps any pollution in the atmosphere.” And with all the pollution from the stubble burning, construction, cars, fireworks …
Normally, even that’s not a problem. Prof. Tyagi mentions, “Under normal conditions, nature has diurnal, large-scale circulation features to disperse pollutants and mitigate the smog.” Right now, “meteorological conditions like light wind, low temperatures, stable layer [sic]” are exacerbating the problem, rather than dispersing pollutants. And that is causing the days-long smog.
What Are People Doing About It?
Despite everything, hope remains, as government officials work on solutions. Car rationing, also enforced in 2016, is happening: traffic bans switch daily for cars with even- and odd-numbered license plates. Majeet Singh Makkar of the Punjab Agricultural University suggested three alternatives for the current method of stubble burning. As for schools, officials will continue to evaluate the situation to determine when the long holiday can end.
However, the effects of PM2.5 caused an estimated half-million deaths in 2015 alone. If Delhi and India wish to lower this death rate, they must come up with more long-term solutions.
Smoking cigarettes is another problem in India. Here’s an article about a man who developed lung cancer and murdered the man who introduced him to smoking.