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Hazardous Air Quality Causes Public Health Emergency In New Delhi


Officials in India's capital, New Delhi, have declared a public health emergency. The problem is severe pollution. The city's chief minister called it, quote, "a gas chamber." Schools are closed, and yesterday nearly 40 flights were diverted because visibility was just so bad. Niha Masih is India correspondent for The Washington Post, and she's on Skype from New Delhi. Hi, Niha.


KING: So you are there. You're experiencing this. What is it like?

MASIH: Yes, unfortunately (laughter). Well, I would say it's quite dystopian. Yesterday was one of the worst days that we've had. Not just this year, but in the last - over the last few years. There was, like, a really, really thick ball of smoke, gray smoke, all over the city. You couldn't see skyscrapers. You couldn't see national monuments. The air had a noxious, almost pungent, smell that makes eyes water. You cough, even if you have no respiratory issues. You feel breathless if you stay outdoors too much. It reminded me of Mordor from "Lord Of The Rings," if I could call it that, in a sense.

And, you know, the government advisory is to stay indoors, close all windows, don't go out for morning or evening walks. And as you mentioned, of course, schools are shut. They are staggering office timings, as well. They've brought in a scheme where, on even-number days, only even-number license plate cars will be out on the roads. So yeah, it's not the best place to be right now.

KING: So this is actually really affecting people's daily routines? Like, them getting to work, getting to school.

MASIH: Yes. Absolutely. So odd and even has kicked in from today, and it'll go on for at least two weeks. This has happened last year, as well. But there's also a debate over whether vehicular pollution is going to be enough to, you know, bring down the scale of the problem. So yeah, I mean, people are trying to sort of go around their lives in a long-winded way, trying to live through this climate emergency.

KING: This time of year is known for poor air quality in New Delhi. What's going on? Why does this happen so often?

MASIH: I would say that it's a mix of, you know, like, weather factors, as well as many, many more manmade factors. Of course, as Delhi has grown into a very, very big mega city with almost 29 million people, there is a very, very high level of vehicular pollution. There's industrial pollution from the outskirts. There is constant construction going on in the city, which contributes to a lot of dust. And of course, given its geography, it's surrounded by agricultural states. And at this time of the year, farmers switch from one crop to the other. And during this time, they have to burn the stubble off the last crop. And that's the cheapest way for them to get rid of that.

And the government has not been able to provide enough machinery to do that in an environment-friendly way. So farm fires also contribute to - are a big reason for Delhi's pollution. This is also the season of a big festival in India called Diwali, where people burn firecrackers, which obviously also contribute to worsening the situation.

KING: OK. So a ton of factors. What - aside from telling people to stay home, what is the government doing to help?

MASIH: This year, the government has intensified its efforts. They have banned the entry of trucks. All construction work has been stopped. Power plants on the peripheries have been shut down. The government has also distributed five million masks to schoolchildren for the first time, or is in the process of doing that. So there have been efforts. It's just that these are, you know, small efforts in tackling a problem that is much larger.

KING: Niha Masih is India correspondent for The Washington Post. Thank you so much.

MASIH: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.