New Delhi has been engulfed by a toxic cloud of pollution after millions of residents defied bans on the use of firecrackers during the Hindu festival of Diwali.
Air pollution early on Friday morning exceeded measurable levels, with the city’s air quality monitors all reading an alarming 999 — beyond which the gauges can no longer distinguish change. A reading higher than 100 is considered unhealthy.
The Lancet medical journal has estimated that air pollution in India causes 1m deaths a year.
Air quality across north India had deteriorated in the days before Diwali as farmers in neighbouring agricultural states burnt their fields to remove paddy stubble after the harvest and prepare the ground to sow winter wheat.
That air turned toxic, however, after firecrackers were set off, with many Indians ignoring the ban to celebrate the Hindu “festival of lights” on Thursday night.
Hindu nationalists praised the “civil disobedience”. The role of firecrackers in creating New Delhi’s annual post-Diwali air emergencies has become an emotive issue among some Hindus, who have likened the restrictions to attacks on their religion.
“These guys won’t stop until Deepavali becomes a funeral like affair,” tweeted S. Gurumurthy, an ideologue of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parent organisation of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
“Indian liberals want Deepawali destroyed in India,” he said in another tweet.
Jaggi Vasudev, a guru who is widely known by the moniker Sadhguru and a regular at the World Economic Forum in Davos, insisted that Indian children should not be deprived of the joy of Diwali firecrackers.
“Let not people who are suddenly environmentally active say that no child should have crackers,” Vasudev said in a video message on the eve of the holiday.
Instead, the guru said people concerned about air pollution should “sacrifice for the children” and walk to work for three days. “Don’t drive your car,” he said. “Let the children have the fun of bursting crackers.”
New Delhi’s local government and authorities in adjacent towns prohibited the sale and use of firecrackers this year but local newspapers reported that traders had set up a thriving black market, delivering contraband firecrackers directly to people’s homes.
“Killer smoke in the air this morning,” tweeted Sagarika Ghose, a Delhi-based author of Why I am a Liberal. “Indians are literally choking to death and flouting #cracker ban just to assert religious-cultural identity.”
New Delhi has been ranked as the planet’s most polluted capital city for the past three years by the World Air Quality Report from Swiss air technology company IQAir, while the adjacent bedroom community of Ghaziabad is the most polluted city on earth after Hotan, in China.
Ten of the world’s 15 most polluted cities are in north India, where air is fouled by a combination of diesel exhaust fumes, construction dust, industrial emissions and crop burning.