India’s capital chokes on ‘severe’ smog as farm fires soar

NEW DELHI, India (AFP) – New Delhi was blanketed in noxious haze yesterday as air pollution levels in parts of the city soared to “severe” levels, hours after United States (US) President Donald Trump described the air in the vast nation as “filthy”.

Smoke from agricultural burning, vehicle fumes and industrial emissions – combined with cooler temperatures and slow-moving winds that trap pollutants over the city – turns air in the Indian capital into a toxic soup every winter.

The air quality index at Delhi’s 36 pollution monitoring sites – which monitors tiny PM2.5 and PM10 particles that get into the bloodstream and vital organs – was between 282 and 446, pushing levels into the “severe” category, the Central Pollution Control Board said.

The “good” category is between zero to 50, the government’s environmental watchdog added.

A “significant increase in stubble fire count” to 1,213 in Haryana and Punjab states was the highest of this season and made up 17 per cent of Delhi’s PM2.5 levels, the state-run System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) added yesterday. “Further deterioration of (air quality) is expected for the two days,” SAFAR said.

A general view shows the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium under heavy smog conditions in New Delhi, India. PHOTO: AFP

This season’s burning started earlier because of advanced sowing and harvesting by farmers amid fears of labour shortages during the coronavirus pandemic, officials said.

The worsening conditions came as US President Trump complained that action on climate change was unfair to the US. Scientists warned this year’s pollution season would make Delhi’s 20 million residents more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“Air pollution increases the risk of non-communicable diseases – the same underlying conditions that make people more likely to experience severe illness or death from Covid-19,” epidemiologist from global non-profit Vital Strategies Sumi Mehta told AFP.

Healthcare systems, stretched by the pandemic, could be further stressed by more hospitalisations from pollution-related illnesses, researchers added.

“There are serious worries that during winter when higher air pollution levels in any case worsens respiratory illness and increases hospitalisation, the vulnerability to Covid-19 may be further enhanced,” Anumita Roy Chowdhury of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment told AFP.