The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Toxic smog engulfs New Delhi, prompting school and factory closures

A man rows his boat in the Yamuna river amid heavy smog in the old quarters of Delhi, India, on Friday. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

It happens every winter in India’s sprawling capital: The cold air arrives, trapping the dust and other pollutants emitted by its 20 million residents. The result? A filthy, choking haze that engulfs the city and halts daily life.

For the third day this week, air quality in the city passed the “severe” threshold, reaching 445 on Friday, India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences said. The figure is 10 times the target level established in the World Health Organization’s 2021 air quality guidelines, which advises a 24-hour mean of 45.

As the smog descended on Delhi and the surrounding areas, officials on Friday ordered schools, factories and construction sites closed and banned diesel trucks from bringing nonessential goods to the capital. About half of the city’s government employees were urged to work from home.

The WHO estimates that millions die annually due to air pollution, and recognizes it as the world’s largest environmental health threat. IQAir, a Swiss air quality company, ranked New Delhi as the most polluted capital in 2021.

Air pollution has been linked to heart diseases, a higher risk of stroke and lung cancer, and in 2019 was the leading cause of death in India, according to government data.

Siddharth Singh, the author of “The Great Smog of India,” tweeted that, unlike immunity developed from a virus or a vaccine, “the human body cannot get used to air pollution,” as “the particulate matter enters your lungs, your bloodstream, and then lodges itself in your organs.”

Both the state and federal governments in India have faced criticism for failing to tackle the air pollution problem. And as the crisis mounted this week, regional politicians tried to blame each other for the health hazard.

In a news conference on Friday, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said that Delhi and Punjab should not be held responsible for the smog, which he called “a northern India issue.”

He said that there would be no solution without joint state and federal action, adding that the six months since the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) formed a government in Punjab was “not enough” for the government to implement solutions.

India’s Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav, however, blamed the northern Punjab state for failing to stop farmers from burning crop residues, writing on Twitter that “there is no doubt over who has turned Delhi into a gas chamber.”

In a Twitter thread in October, Vimlendu Jha, environmentalist and founder of the youth organization Swechha, said the Delhi government lacks “political will and urgency.”

The central and state governments “have FAILED to find a medium to long term solution to this problem,” Jha wrote, “often stopping at just blaming the farmers and passing the buck, instead of farm reforms, crop rotation incentives, technology assistance etc.”

The crisis comes as India’s government called Friday for rich countries to deliver on their pledge of providing $100 billion in annual climate finance to developing countries — and to increase the amount at the U.N. climate conference next week.

Masih reported from New Delhi.