By Niha Masih closeNiha MasihForeign correspondent
Delhi is the most polluted major metropolis in the world, a condition that intensifies every year starting in October as temperatures cool and wind speeds drop. The pungent-smelling air makes eyes water and can induce coughing and breathlessness even for those without respiratory illnesses. Last week, the city declared a public health emergency, and schools have been shut down.
The level of particulate matter considered most harmful to human health skyrocketed to more than 25 times the safe limit prescribed by the World Health Organization before receding somewhat.
Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of the state of Delhi, has repeatedly referred to the region as a “gas chamber.” Last week, the city declared a public health emergency, and schools have been shut down.
On days when pollution is severe, an emergency action plan comes into force. Trucks are banned from entering the city, diesel generators are prohibited and certain types of polluting industries are shut down. The local government is also distributing pollution masks to millions of students and temporarily limiting the number of cars on the road: Only vehicles with even-numbered license plates are allowed on even-numbered days.
Other efforts to combat the smog include a more concentrated campaign — 62 teams of two officers from the state and central pollution authorities fan out across the city, a metropolitan area of 29 million people that is almost the size of West Virginia, to seek out potential violations of anti-pollution regulations.
Anwar Ali Khan, a senior engineer at Delhi’s state pollution control authority, and a partner are responsible for ensuring that more than 50 major construction projects are up to code.
“We’re on the job day and night,” said Khan, 49.
Other teams watch out for garbage burning, plastic dumping, projects that generate road dust and illegal encroachments on roads that can cause traffic snarls.
For the first time this year, inspectors like Khan are doing patrols at night and have been given the power to fine violators on the spot.
On Friday afternoon, Khan and his partner, Pankaj Kapil, arrived at a large residential construction project owned by the central government in the heart of south Delhi. They had a list of 10 measures to control dust emissions that all construction sites must follow.
They walked around the site through slushy mud and over gravel, armed only with a thick sheaf of papers and their smartphones to take photos of violations. Their office had not provided them with pollution masks. Khan, who bought his own cheap mask recently, said he had accidentally left it behind in his office. Kapil doesn’t have one.
Khan and Kapil find that the construction material at the site was not adequately covered, and there was not sufficient barricading around the periphery to prevent the spread of dust. They levy a fine of $7,000, despite the protests of the site manager.
“It’s an emergency situation,” Khan told the manager. “There is zero tolerance this time.”
The pair filed their report to a WhatsApp group, then rushed back to headquarters for a daily monitoring meeting. Since the end of September, Khan and Kapil have levied over $85,000 in penalties during their inspections.
But given the size and complexity of Delhi’s pollution issue, experts say that such inspection efforts are a small piece of the puzzle.
“The problem is so large that these little things will have no visible impact,” said Siddharth Singh, the author of a recent book on India’s pollution crisis.
Singh said that Delhi is losing the battle against pollution because it lacks a central agency to coordinate efforts across states and industries. “The aspects of the economy that impact air pollution are fragmented across sectors — agriculture, transport, construction, industries,” he said.
This week, Delhi government blamed the neighboring states of Punjab and Haryana for failing to stop the annual practice of farmers setting fire to their recently harvested fields to prepare them for the next crop. On Sunday, the central government belatedly set up a high-level task force to monitor the situation.
Hospitals have seen a spike in patients with respiratory problems, and doctors have called air pollution a silent killer. One recent study estimated that air pollution kills more than 1 million Indians a year, more than tobacco use.
For Delhiites, the annual battle with pollution — which is at its most intense from October through February but present year-round — has become a dispiriting ritual. Many residents talk of leaving the city for good.
Sonam Arora, a banker, said she is looking for opportunities in cities with better air to bring her up child. “As a new mother of a 3-month-old baby, I have not stepped out of the house for over 10 days,” she said.
Akhilesh Kumar, a civil engineer, was pessimistic as he shopped for groceries over the weekend. “Delhi is not a place to live anymore,” he said.
Joanna Slater and Tania Dutta contributed to this report.