Toxic air pollution in India prompts Supreme Court to act

NEW DELHI – A thick layer of noxious haze has settled over the Indian capital of New Delhi, burning eyes and lungs, forcing schools to c...


NEW DELHI – A thick layer of noxious haze has settled over the Indian capital of New Delhi, burning eyes and lungs, forcing schools to close and prompting ardent calls from residents for action.

Indian leaders responded with what has become an annual tradition: pointing fingers at each other.

The central government, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, accuses city officials of inaction, and vice versa. The country’s Supreme Court has intervened to shut down factories and order farmers to stop burning fields. But the court’s other efforts, which last year included ordering the installation of a pair of air-purifying filter towers, were ridiculed as ineffective.

The airborne darkness and the towers symbolize India’s deep political dysfunction. The suffocating pollution has become an annual phenomenon, and scientists nationwide can accurately predict the worst days. But deep partisanship and official intransigence have hampered measures that could help clean the air.

The people of New Delhi disagree about who is at fault, but they agree that more needs to be done.

“For the past three weeks, I have become a refugee. I was so sick I couldn’t take it anymore, ”said Jai Dhar Gupta, owner of a business that sells air pollution abatement tools, such as home air purifiers and face masks.

Mr. Gupta, who now lives between Delhi and Mussoorie, a city in the foothills of the Himalayas where the air is better, became an anti-pollution activist and entrepreneur in 2013, after developing asthma.

“It’s really sad for a country where every time there is a health emergency, the Supreme Court has to intervene. It tells you all about apathy towards health and life in our country, ”said Mr. Gupta. “Nobody cares.”

The court intervened over the weekend in response to a petition filed by an 18-year-old environmental activist and after the city suffered levels of pollution comparable to the levels generated. by major forest fires. This officials criticized for what he called their “take no steps” position.

Earlier this week, Delhi’s emergency measures went into effect. Construction activities, diesel generators and trucks were banned. Schools were closed and employers were asked to keep half of their staff at home. Six power plants outside of New Delhi have been closed.

Under pressure from the court, city officials also rolled out other measures that inspired more jokes than optimism. They include anti-smog guns that create an artificial mist, fire trucks to spray the streets with water and chemical dust suppressants.

“These are hardly measures,” said Bhavreen Kandhari, a member of Warrior Moms, a group of mothers pushing for cleaner air. “These are reactions, instinctive reactions. Until you have the political intention, you know nothing is going to happen.

Generally speaking, India’s air quality suffers from its appetite for fossil fuels, which only increased after two decades of rapid economic growth. Last year, India was home to 15 of the 20 cities with the most dangerous air in the world, and health experts have detailed how such conditions can lead to brain damage, respiratory problems and premature death.

It will be difficult to wean the country off coal and other dirty fuels, a reality underscored by the climate talks that took place in Glasgow, Scotland this month. India is already struggling to meet its basic energy needs. During talks in Scotland, India and China joined together to insist on a last-minute amendment to the wording of the deal, to “phase out” coal rather than relax it.

Mr. Modi argues that India’s growing use of coal and other fossil fuels is helping to build an economy that lifts millions of people out of poverty. But emissions from burning coal exacerbate the pollution problem for city dwellers, especially the poor, who can’t afford air purifiers or electricity to run them.

Cities are also suffering from increasing emissions from cars and fires that poorer residents burn for cooking and warming, especially when the weather is colder in November. Air quality in New Delhi is particularly affected by the burning of crop stubble by farmers in the neighboring states of Punjab and Haryana. Bad air settles on the Indo-Gangetic plain of northern India, trapped on both sides by the Thar Desert and the Himalayas, forming a toxic stew.

Mr Modi’s government said Delhi, which is run by an opposition political party, has failed to enforce its own pollution reduction policies, such as limiting vehicle traffic on days when pollution occurs. increases. Earlier this week, Adesh GuptaDelhi chairman of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party said Delhi’s top elected official Arvind Kejriwal should step down.

“Instead of making Delhi a world class city as he claimed, Kejriwal made it a smog city,” Gupta said.

Delhi officials in turn say Mr Modi’s government failed to persuade farmers in neighboring states to stop clear their fields with lights.

“Farmers in neighboring states are forced to burn stubble because their governments are not doing anything for them,” Kejriwal said.

The Supreme Court also intervened last year, ordering the two sides to take measures such as banning farm fires and capturing emissions from power plants. He also ordered Delhi early last year to build the two experimental smog towers, despite experts doubting their impact. A to study last year in the peer-reviewed journal Atmosphere called the unscientific approach.

“Can we suck up our air pollution problem with the help of smog towers?” The short answer is no, ”the researchers said.

Yet they are a tempting refuge for those desperate to escape the harsh city air.

As a coppery sun set behind a smoky sky, Jasmer Singh rested under a smog tower in central Delhi as he sucked in polluted air. A monitor measuring levels of dangerous particles showed the air he spat out was slightly cleaner, but nowhere near what the World Health Organization considers safe.

Yet Mr. Singh, a volunteer from a nearby Sikh temple, said, “The air here is good, lighter and better.

Some members of Mr. Modi’s party and the opposition say they want to take a serious and impartial look at the problem.

“The blame game will always be there,” said Vikas Mahatme, a BJP lawmaker Summarizing the attitudes of many politicians, he said: “Why should we care about other states? They are not voters to consider.

Still, it will be difficult to get all the parties to work together, he admitted. “We are not very active,” he said. “I tell you freely. “

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