Officials weigh lockdown for New Delhi as pollution levels skyrocket

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Officials in India are debating the need to institute a lockdown for New Delhi as northern regions of the country remain blanketed by a thick layer of toxic smog.

The air quality has become so bad that justices on the country’s supreme court last weekend ordered authorities to halt all nonessential travel on roads in the National Capital Region and directed offices to close in the area, which caused tens of millions of people to work from home on Monday. However, it remained unclear if or when such an unprecedented lockdown would take place, according to NPR.

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Schools across New Delhi, home to more than 20 million, closed or switched to remote learning on Monday due to the risk of breathing the toxic air. For many children, the change back to remote learning came shortly after in-person classes resumed for the first time in nearly 20 months due to COVID-19.

“Virtual classes will continue so that children don’t have to come out and breathe polluted air,” the chief minister of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal said, according to CNN. In addition to schools being affected, Kejriwal said that New Delhi’s government offices will operate under a work-from-home policy this week.

This AccuWeather image shows the dangerous air quality (in purple) across India, according to data from Plume Labs.
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Kejriwal said that a pollution-related lockdown would not have a substantial impact unless similar measures were instituted by neighboring states, NPR reported.

“Pollution lockdown has never happened before. It will be an extreme step,” he said.

The air quality in India’s largest city and capital remained at “dangerous” levels this week. This is the worst category on a six-point scale that ranges from excellent to dangerous, according to Plume Labs. Plume Labs partnered with AccuWeather in 2020 to provide users worldwide with a broad range of health-centric information.

New Delhi Air Quality 11/16
Air quality in New Delhi hit a yearly high on Nov. 4 with an Air Quality Index reading of 391. Graphic courtesy of Plume Labs

Dangerous air quality is defined by Plume Labs as “any exposure to the air, even for a few minutes, [that] can lead to serious health effects on everybody.” People should avoid outdoor activities in such challenging conditions.

On Saturday, the concentration of PM 2.5 particles, a measure of the fine particulate in the air, surged to 10 times over the maximum daily limit recommended by the World Health Organization, Euronews reported.

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PM 2.5 is the most dangerous particulate in the air because it can penetrate a person’s lung barrier and enter the blood system, according to the World Health Organization. Chronic exposure to these particles contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as lung cancer.

In early 2020 amid the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, India was put into a strict national lockdown, which brought significant improvements in air quality. As a result, skies cleared and people were treated to beautiful views not seen in 30 years.

From the late autumn into the winter each year, air quality across northern India deteriorates to dangerous levels. This is largely due to the combination of agricultural burning and the burning of fossil fuels for transportation, energy generation and commercial purposes, according to AccuWeather meteorologists.

“The lack of weather systems to mix up the atmosphere keeps all of the pollutants near the surface of the Earth,” said AccuWeather senior meteorologist Tyler Roys. “On occasion, a front will move across northwestern India, including New Delhi, which will help to clean the air for a few days, though we typically see air quality rapidly worsen in the wake of any short-lived improvements.

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“There are no significant improvements with air quality expected across northern India in the near future,” Roys said.

At the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, India pledged to reduce the amount of coal it burns for electricity generation. India Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India’s emissions will be net-zero by 2070.