Angry parents accused Delhi authorities yesterday of “playing with children’s health” as schools reopened despite a fresh surge in pollution to emergency levels.
Doctors declared a public health emergency last week when choking smog descended on the capital and elsewhere in northern India, prompting authorities to close schools, ban construction and bar trucks from entering the city.
Yesterday authorities reopened schools amid concerns over upcoming exams, angering some parents.
“There has been no let-up in the pollution levels. So if the situation is the same, action should be the same. Why open the schools now?” said Ashok Agrawal, president of the All India Parents Association.
“On one hand the government is saying there is a health emergency and on the other they are playing with children’s health.
“It is so disturbing to see children coughing and struggling to breathe all the way to the school.”
A US embassy measure showed levels of poisonous airborne particles had reached 498 yesterday afternoon, compared with the upper limit of “good” quality air at 50.
India’s weather office said rain was forecast over the next three days which could help clear the smog.
“Light rainfall is likely in states surrounding Delhi and in Delhi over the next three days, and this could result in a change in wind pattern in the region,” Charan Singh, a scientist at India Meteorological Department, said.
“Smog will start to abate starting tomorrow.”
But Skymet, India’s only private weather forecaster, said dense smog would continue over Delhi and the surrounding area for at least the next two days.
Doctors say children are particularly vulnerable to air pollution and this can cause long-term damage to their lungs.
One 2015 study found that four in 10 Delhi children were suffering from severe lung problems.
“It is a fact that children are particularly vulnerable and more affected by pollution than adults,” said Ajay Lekhi, doctor and president of the Delhi Medical Association.
“They breathe more air per pound of body weight, so their exposure to air pollution is much greater,” he said.
A report in the Lancet medical journal said pollution had claimed as many as 2.5mn lives in India in 2015, the highest in the world.
Large swathes of north India see a surge in pollution at the onset of winter, when farmers burn crop stubble following the harvest.
The cooler air also traps particulates close to the ground and prevents them from dispersing - a phenomenon known as inversion.
Over the weekend, authorities began using fire trucks to spray water in parts of the capital to keep the dust and other air particles down, but it has had little effect.
A senior federal government official said there was little more that could be done.
“We can only do this much, and now we will have to wait for rains to clean the atmosphere,” said Prashant Gargava, an official at the Central Pollution Control Board.
Gargava, who is in charge of monitoring air quality, said Delhi’s air has been consistently in the “hazardous” zone, despite measures such as a halt to construction and increasing car parking charges four-fold to encourage people to use public transport.
United Airlines said it had resumed flights from Newark, New Jersey, to New Delhi on Sunday, after suspending the service temporarily over concern about the bad air.
In Delhi, local industry, coal-fired power plants and a growing number of cars on the roads have worsened the crisis.
The state government last week announced restrictions on private car use from yesterday, but the plan collapsed after India’s top environmental court objected to exemptions for women, VIPs and motorcycles.
The Delhi government yesterday filed a review petition.
“We have filed a review petition demanding exemptions for women drivers and two-wheelers for this year only,” Delhi government lawyer Tarunvir Singh Khehar said.
Kehar said that from next year, with better preparation, it would be in a position to implement the odd-even scheme without any exemption.
The National Green Tribunal would hear the matter today, its chief Swatanter Kumar said.
Also yesterday Haryana Chief Minister Manoharlal Khattar and his Delhi counterpart Arvind Kejriwal traded barbs over a meeting on the raging issue of stubble burning and finally agreed to meet in Chandigarh tomorrow.
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