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Schools shut as toxic smog engulfs India’s capital

NEW DELHI (AFP) – Schools were shut across India’s capital yesterday as a noxious grey smog engulfed the megacity and made life a misery for its 30 million inhabitants.

Smoke from farmers burning crop stubble, vehicle exhaust and factory emissions combine every winter to blanket Delhi in a choking haze.

The public health crisis has persisted for decades and researchers have blamed the smog for hundreds of thousands of premature deaths across India.

Levels of the most dangerous PM2.5 particles – so tiny they can enter the bloodstream – were yesterday almost 35 times the daily maximum recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), according to monitoring firm IQAir.

“In light of the rising pollution levels, all government and private primary schools in Delhi will remain closed for the next two days,” Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Delhi, one of the largest urban areas on the planet, is also regularly ranked as one of the world’s most polluted cities.

Smog covers the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. PHOTO: AFP

Eye-stinging and lung-burning smog peaks from October to February when colder air traps pollution, with residents advised to wear face masks outside at all times.

Authorities regularly announce different plans to reduce pollution, for example by halting construction work, but to little effect.

India is hosting the Cricket World Cup and organisers have banned fireworks at matches in Mumbai and Delhi to avoid compounding hazardous air pollution levels.

Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are due to play in Delhi on Monday, with little likelihood of the air clearing for their match.

India captain Rohit Sharma told reporters on Wednesday that the situation was “not ideal” for the tournament.

“Everyone knows that,” he said. “Looking at our future generation… it’s quite important that they get to live without any fear.” A Lancet study in 2020 attributed 1.67 million deaths to air pollution in India during the previous year, including almost 17,500 in the capital.

And the average city resident could die nearly 12 years earlier than expected due to air pollution, according to an August report by the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute.

India is heavily reliant on polluting coal for energy generation.

Its per capita coal emissions have risen 29 per cent in the past seven years and it has shied away from policies to phase down the dirty fossil fuel.