Air pollution levels in India's capital remained at near record levels, forcing schools to shut down through mid week and keeping residents indoors as the nation grapples for solutions.
The air quality index, or AQI, reached as high as 858 at some areas in New Delhi at 6.30 a.m. Monday after breaching 1,000 over the weekend, according to website AirVisual, which monitors air pollution around the world. Readings above 300 are considered hazardous; anything below 50 is safe.
The level of carcinogenic pollutants in New Delhi's air was nearly six times the reading in Beijing, where air quality has seen a considerable improvement over the past years.
"A child born yesterday in Delhi would have smoked the equivalent of 40 to 50 cigarettes on the first day of his or her life," said Arvind Kumar, a lung surgeon at the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in Delhi and founder of the Lung Care Foundation. "A silent damage is occurring inside our body."
India, home to 10 cities with the world's worst air quality, has been struggling to contain this annual catastrophe that killed an estimated 1.24 million citizens in 2017. Governments have pledged millions of dollars and deployed extra teams to enforce existing laws that include a ban on farmers burning stubble after harvest. But the sheer size of India makes rapid progress difficult.
Air quality generally deteriorates as winter sets in because of a combination of agricultural crop burning in the nearby states of Punjab and Haryana, dust from roads and construction sites, industry, coal power plants and vehicular emissions.
The country's top court on Monday ordered immediate steps to curb crop and garbage burning. "It's happening every year, we are not able to do anything," said Justice Arun Mishra, who heads a two-judge panel hearing a case in the Supreme Court on air pollution in the national capital region.
Satellite cities of Gurgaon and Noida are experiencing similar unbreathable air as the thick deadly haze engulfs large parts of Delhi and adjoining states in northern India.
The average life expectancy of people living in northern India and along the plains of river Ganga, the most famous waterway, is likely to be curtailed by seven years because of pollution, according to the website of Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. The Indo-Gangetic plain is one of the most-clogged regions, housing more than 40% of India's 1.3 billion people, it said.
"It's a severe-plus situation, it's a health emergency situation," said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of research at the Centre for Science and Environment. "We really have to do a lot more" for Delhi to cut pollution by another 65% to meet the clean air standard, she said.
For the past few years, farm stubble burning along with festive firecrackers, vehicular and construction emissions have been turning the South Asian nation's air deadly around October and November.
New Dehli implemented the odd-even scheme, that determines road access by license-plate number to curb vehicular pollution. Cars with registration number ending in an odd figure will be allowed on days with odd dates and even on other days.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, which returned to power in May with a bigger mandate, has pledged to reduce levels across 102 most polluted Indian cities by at least 35% over the next five years.
Camille Raynes-Greenow, a maternal and child health expert at The University of Sydney School of Public Health, blamed industries' disregard for the environment and lack of modern techniques in farming.
"The acute respiratory and eye symptoms that many people will experience are just the tip of the iceberg that will also impact the developing fetus and small children," she said.