NEW DELHI: A toxic smog shrouding New Delhi persuaded many students to stay home rather return to schools that reopened on Monday (Nov 8) as authorities eased restrictions imposed when the COVID-19 pandemic first struck India in March last year.
"The pollution in Delhi is hazardous. We as parents are afraid of sending our children to school," Kamlesh Sharma, one of the parents wrote on Twitter.
New Delhi has the worst air quality of any capital city, but even by its standards the past few days have been extraordinarily bad.
For air to be deemed safe, the Air Quality Index (AQI), which has a scale of 500, should be below 50. In New Delhi on Monday it was 385, well into hazardous territory. That was a marginal improvement on the 451 registered last week as moderate winds helped disperse some of the pollution.
While some schools had resumed classes for higher grades, pupils aged 14 and below were allowed back for the first time on Monday as part of a staggered re-opening.
But many schools reported poor attendance on the first day back due to parents' fears over the hazardous air and the coronavirus risks.
"After COVID, pollution has emerged a major threat for public health particularly for children and senior citizens," Ashok Agarwal, national president, All India Parents Association, said, expressing frustration with the lack of enforcement, and political will to improve Delhi's air.
Airborne particles of pollution can cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases such as lung cancer. And, in India, toxic air kills more than a million people annually.
The severe deterioration in air quality during the past week was caused by farmers violating a ban on stubble burning in agricultural states surrounding the capital and people ignoring a ban on fireworks to celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.
Nearly 80 per cent of families in Delhi region, with a population of about 20 million, reported ailments like headaches, problems in breathing, and runny noses due to the air pollution, according a survey of 34,000 respondents by a private agency, Local Circles.
"With in-person schools finally opening after a long period of online classes, many parents seem reluctant to send children to school in the coming weeks due to the dual risk of COVID and pollution," said Sachin Taparia, head of Local Circles.