Smog returns to India capital as wind drops, farmers burn stubble

With industrial activities resuming and cars back on roads – along with less wind – air quality in the city again falls to unhealthy levels.

A worker operates an anti-smog gun at a construction site in New Delhi [Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

The Indian capital’s air quality levels have plunged to “very poor” and a smoggy haze has settled over the city, days after the state government initiated stricter measures to fight air pollution.

The Air Quality Index (AQI) in New Delhi rose past 270 on Friday, according to SAFAR, India’s main environment monitoring agency, after agricultural fires in neighbouring states sent smoke billowing across the city.

On Thursday, the AQI level had crossed 300, indicating “very poor” conditions that pose a risk of respiratory problems.

The World Health Organization deems anything above 25 as unsafe.

Since October 1, New Delhi’s average AQI was more than 36 percent higher than the figures for the same period a year ago, according to the data compiled by the Reuters news agency.

Homeless story
Rickshaw pullers in New Delhi as a thick layer of smog covers the city [File: Nasir Kachroo/Al Jazeera]

The Indian capital, one of the world’s most polluted cities, enjoyed a respite from air pollution up until September in part due to to a coronavirus lockdown.

But with industrial activities resuming and cars back on the roads – along with the onset of cooler weather and less wind – air quality in the city has once again fallen to unhealthy levels.

Lower wind speeds let deadly pollutants like PM2.5 particles hang in the air.

PM2.5, particles that are less than 2.5 microns in diameter, can be carried deep into the lungs, causing deadly diseases, including cancer and cardiac problems.

October is also the time of year when farmers in neighbouring regions, including the states of Haryana and Punjab, set fire to their fields after having harvested them to clear them, despite there being a ban on it.

That smoke travels to New Delhi, leading to a surge in pollution levels in the city of more than 20 million people and exacerbating what is already a public health crisis.

India pollution
New Delhi”s iconic India Gate in the background covered by thick smog [File: Amarjeet Singh/Al Jazeera]

Health experts say high air pollution levels over a prolonged period have compromised the disease resistance of people living in New Delhi, making them more susceptible to the coronavirus.

Over the years, the pollution crisis in New Delhi has piled public pressure on the government to tackle the root causes.

Authorities have often introduced a system that restricts many private vehicles from taking to the roads for two weeks. It has also ordered firefighters to sprinkle water from high-rise buildings to settle the dust, tried to snuff out rubbish fires and ordered builders to cover construction sites to stop dust from enveloping the area.

But the problem continues to persist.

During the peak pollution periods last year, air pollution levels in New Delhi sometimes soared even off the measurable scale. A dark yellow haze blanketed the city for several days, forcing schools to close and flights to be diverted.

The Indian Agricultural Research Institute says it has developed a microbial liquid solution that softens crop stubble and turns it into compost, thus ruling out the need to burn the agricultural crop.

The watery solution is made of four capsules that cost a little less than half a dollar and can be used for the rapid decomposition of crop residue.

K Annapurna, a senior scientist at the public institute, said the solution can help with pollution levels while at the same time retaining the essential nutrients in the soil that are otherwise damaged when the residue is burned.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies