Delhi chokes on toxic smog after festival of lights

October 26, 2014 by Annie Banerji
A sweeper cleans a flyover as smog covers the capital's skyline, morning after celebrations for the Diwali festival, in New Delhi, on October 24, 2014

Thick smoke hung over New Delhi this week as millions of Indians lit firecrackers to mark the Diwali festival, but calls for a boycott highlighted growing concerns over air quality in one of the world's most polluted cities.

Pollution in the Indian capital reached "severe" levels on Friday, the day after Diwali, according to a new air quality index launched earlier this month as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's "Clean India" mission.

That means the concentration of airborne particles known as PM2.5, which are considered the most harmful, was more than 250—10 times the upper limit recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Indian authorities regularly appeal to the public to restrict their use of firecrackers, which every year cause injuries as well as letting off the acrid smoke that chokes the capital.

But this year the calls had particular resonance after a WHO study of 1,600 cities across 91 countries in May found the Indian capital had the dirtiest atmosphere in the world—a claim Indian authorities fiercely denied.

Despite this week's spike, Gufran Beig, chief scientist at India's state-run System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), said Delhi's air was generally better than Beijing's.

"A majority of the time, Delhi air is quite bad, but it is still better than Beijing," Beig told AFP, while conceding that the post-Diwali air likely rivalled the Chinese capital's infamous smog.

"It's going to be that way for 24 hours before it gets better," he added.

In this file photo, winter fog is seen hanging over the Red Fort in the Indian capital New Delhi, on November 7, 2009

New Delhi's has steadily worsened over the years, a consequence of rapid urbanisation that brings pollution from diesel engines, coal-fired power plants and industrial emissions.

The Indian capital also suffers from atmospheric dust blown in from the deserts of the western state of Rajasthan, as well as pollution from open fires lit by the urban poor to keep warm in winter or to cook food.

The WHO study showed Delhi had the world's highest annual average concentration of PM2.5, at 153.

Experts says these extremely fine particles of less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter are linked with high rates of respiratory and cardiac disease. In the long run they can cause cancer as they settle deep into the lungs and pass into the bloodstream.

"Delhi has a serious problem since its pollution level is anyway very high throughout the year due to rapidly growing number of vehicles," Anumita Roychowdhury, head of the team at the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, told AFP.

The top priority remains creating more public transport, added Roychowdhury, who is a member of a government panel responsible for drafting an action plan to control pollution.

'Inhaling poison'

Smog covers buildings in the Indian capital New Delhi, on May 8, 2014

Modi has made public health one of the main priorities of his new administration, stressing the importance of cleanliness in almost all of his public speeches since his May electoral victory.

But 29-year-old Delhi resident Riddhima Gill said even the was powerless to stop the noxious Diwali celebrations.

"Modi can ask but nobody listens on Diwali. When you find your car with a layer of grime the next day, you know you're inhaling poison," she told AFP, adding that it was a "yearly nightmare" for her asthmatic father.

"Bursting crackers, the noise, the smog is all part of the so-called Diwali tradition. Modi's 'Clean India' can't change mindsets overnight."

In a sign of the growing concern about the impact of air pollution, a video campaign for a "green Diwali" featuring local children carrying signs asking people not to light crackers went viral on Indian social media ahead of the festival.

"The call has to come from within, no one should have to tell us 'do this, don't do this'," said Gurmeet Sapal, the Delhi-based independent film-maker behind the video, which can be seen below .

"We know things won't change overnight," he told AFP. "At least we have made a positive start."

Explore further: India admits 'Delhi as polluted as Beijing' (Update)

Related Stories

India admits 'Delhi as polluted as Beijing' (Update)

May 8, 2014

India's state air monitoring centre made a rare admission Thursday that pollution in New Delhi was comparable with Beijing, but disputed a WHO finding that the Indian capital had the dirtiest atmosphere in the world.

Smog in Indian capital blamed on vehicle increase

November 7, 2012

A choking smog that has enveloped New Delhi for more than a week has been partially caused by a rapid increase in vehicles on the streets of India's capital, environmentalists said Wednesday.

Modi wields broom in new 'Clean India' push

October 2, 2014

Prime Minister Narendra Modi wielded a broom in a New Delhi slum on Thursday as he pledged to sweep away India's reputation for poor public hygiene and rudimentary sanitation.

Air quality worsening in world's cities

May 7, 2014

Most city dwellers around the world are exposed to air pollution levels that are considered unsafe, and the situation is getting worse, according to a World Health Organization report Wednesday.

Recommended for you

Scientists dispute missing dryland forests

November 21, 2017

Scientists are disputing the possibility that a significant portion of the world's forests have been missed in an earlier accounting of ecological diversity.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.