Schools have been shut down in the National Capital Region (NCR) for the second time this month as air quality levels continued to deteriorate on Wednesday, shrouding the city in smog full of toxic pollutants that brought back a public health emergency.
The air quality index (AQI) in Delhi, according to the Central Pollution Control Board’s 4pm bulletin, was 456 on Wednesday and officials said it was likely to deteriorate even further on Thursday with some relief possible only by the day after. On Tuesday, the AQI was at 425.
“Odd-even (road rationing scheme) may be extended if necessary. I would like to appeal to the opposition not to oppose odd-even. Pollution has increased drastically. All of Delhi is demanding odd-even and at such a time the opposition parties should support people’s wish,” said Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal.
A decision of whether the odd-even curbs need to be extended will be taken on Friday, the day the drive is supposed to end.
The task force of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) met on Wednesday as AQI strayed deeper into the “severe” category, with levels of ultra-fine PM2.5 particles remaining above the danger mark of 300µg/m3 for over 24 hours (starting Tuesday 12pm). These levels are regarded as hazardous for young people, the elderly, and those with existing bronchial conditions.
The Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (Epca) asked administrations in NCR to shut all schools for two days — Thursday and Friday.
“The Delhi government has decided to shut all government and private schools in the city for tomorrow and day after (Thursday-Friday) on account of deteriorating air quality because of stubble burning pollution in north western India,” Delhi’s deputy chief minister and education minister Manish Sisodia said in tweet late on Wednesday.
Later in the evening, district officials in Gurugram, Faridabad, Ghaziabad, Noida and Greater Noida also issued orders for schools in their areas to be closed.
According to Epca’s letter sent to all state officials, the air quality in Delhi-NCR was “extremely unhealthy” without any possibility of dispersion of pollutants at least till the next two days.
“All agencies will have to control local sources of pollution so that the situation can be mitigated as far as possible,” the letter read.
The issue also came up in Supreme Court on Wednesday, when judges directed the Union government to explore the feasibility of a hydrogen-based fuel technology as a permanent solution to the air pollution in the Delhi-NCR region and other parts of north India.
At another hearing on a related issue – a petition challenging the legality of the odd-even curbs – a separate bench asked the Delhi government to present air quality data for the period that fell when the plan was in force as well as comparative data for the period of October 1 to December 31, 2018.
Scientists at the India Meteorological Department (IMD) said air quality will deteriorate till Thursday afternoon, after which wind speeds could pick up. Wind speed from Friday till November 18 is expected to be 15-20kmph, which will help improve air quality.
Construction activity has been suspended in the national capital as well as operations in polluting industries as the capital grapples with a problem that has become predictable but virtually unavoidable in recent years.
A significant trigger for the pollution, according to experts, has been farm fires in the states of Punjab and Haryana. The smoke from these areas has been estimated to have reached as far as Kolkata, covering cities, towns and villages in the Gangetic plains in a hazardous smoke cloud.