Northern India chokes on toxic smog day after Diwali festival

Northern India chokes on toxic smog day after Diwali festival

Traffic moves on a highway shrouded in smog in New Delhi
Traffic moves along a highway shrouded in smog in New Delhi, India, November 15, 2020. Picture taken with a drone. (Photo: REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui)

CHENNAI/NEW DELHI: Hundreds of millions of Indians in north India woke up on Sunday (Nov 15) to toxic air following Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, after many revellers defied bans on using firecrackers to celebrate.

The capital New Delhi was blanketed with a thick haze, with the average pollution level more than 9 times what is considered safe by the World Health Organization.

"The overall air quality of Delhi is in the Severe category as of today morning," the state-run System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) said Sunday.

"Significant local additional emissions (probably firecracker related) during yesterday night ... build up stubble fire-related pollutant concentrations."

But the meteorological body added that wind speeds in the capital were picking up on Sunday, helping to clear the choking air, while "isolated scattered rainfall" later in the day was also expected.

Delhi's Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had banned the use and sale of firecrackers ahead of Diwali, but the policy has been difficult to implement.

Revellers in the capital let off huge amounts of fireworks well into Sunday morning, prompting angry residents and environmentalists to complain on social media of breathing difficulties and stinging eyes.

People watch as firecrackers burn during Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, in New Delhi
FILE PHOTO: People watch as firecrackers burn during Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, in New Delhi, India, November 14, 2020. (REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis/File photo)

"Our gods must be so happy today, that their followers burst firecrackers and choked the young ones to despair and death," said Vimlendu Jha, the founder of non-profit environmental group Swechha.

Some defended firecrackers as an essential part of a religious tradition celebrated by millions across the country.

"Are you realising how all of India, all places stood up in defiance against the cracker ban? It's like a form of Hindu-freedom battle cry," Tarun Vijay, a leader of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, tweeted.

A man rows a makeshift boat across Yamuna river on a smoggy morning in New Delhi
A man rows a makeshift boat across Yamuna river on a smoggy morning in New Delhi, India, November 15, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi)

People ride a boat across Yamuna river as a metro train is seen in the background in New Delhi, Ind
People ride a boat across Yamuna river as a metro train is seen in the background in New Delhi, India November 15, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi)

New Delhi's air pollution typically worsens in October and November due to farmers burning agricultural waste, coal-fired power plants, traffic and windless days.

The raging COVID-19 epidemic, with more than 400,000 cases in the city of 20 million people, has also heightened alarm over the smog. Doctors have warned of a sharp increase in respiratory illnesses.

READ: Shoppers shrug off COVID-19, pollution ahead of India's biggest festival

Cities in the states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Bihar and New Delhi - which have already been suffering from some of the worst air in the world - saw even higher levels of pollution than on the morning after Diwali last year, government data analysed by Reuters showed.

A residential area is seen shrouded in smog in New Delhi
A residential area is seen shrouded in smog in New Delhi, India, November 15, 2020. Picture taken with a drone. (Photo: REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui)

An average of air quality indices measured at different places within the major cities in these states was higher than last year, according to data from the Central Pollution Control Board.

Source: Agencies/ta

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