NEW DELHI — A toxic cloud has descended on India’s capital, delaying flights and trains, causing coughs, headaches and even highway pileups, and prompting Indian officials on Wednesday to take the unprecedented step of closing 4,000 schools for nearly a week.
Delhi has notoriously noxious air but even by the standards of this city, this week’s pollution has been alarming, reaching levels nearly 30 times what the World Health Organization considers safe. On Tuesday, the government decided to close primary schools and on Wednesday the closings were extended to all public and most private schools.
For those of us living here, the air pollution saps our strength. Many people feel nauseated all day, like from a never-ending case of car sickness. The air tastes smoky and irritates the throat, and in some neighborhoods, it smells like paint.
Even if you have air filters in your house, as some of us do, a faint lingering chemical smell always seems to find its way in, through air-conditioner vents, open windows and cracks in the doors.
Manish Sisodia, the deputy chief minister of Delhi State, said he was driving to a meeting Wednesday morning when he passed a school bus and saw two children throwing up out of the window. “That was shocking for me,” he said. “I immediately told my officers to pass the order to close all the schools.”
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.
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 recordedin 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.”