Officials have implored the people of New Delhi to stay inside, indefinitely. Five million children in India’s capital have been handed face masks. Everyone is to keep windows closed. Contrary to the most fundamental medical advice, the city’s chief minister urged residents this week to “avoid outdoor physical activities.”
News images seem cut from an apocalyptic outbreak film. One of India’s holiest rivers is covered in toxic foam that looks like white cotton candy. Midday visibility is like a foggy dusk. The air reportedly causes people’s eyes to burn.
At the root is not some panic-inducing virus, though. The cause is simply pollution from agriculture and transportation. And the city’s air crisis is unique only in degree. The same elements are accumulating in the air everywhere.
More than a decade ago, a study by India’s government predicted the untenability of the air in New Delhi, warning that the crisis was primarily due to emissions from the city’s more than 8 million cars. Since then, New Delhi’s air has constantly been among the world’s most dangerous, and it has recently gone through phases of being simply uninhabitable. This happens often in the weeks when nearby farmers set their fields ablaze after harvest, adding to an already precarious baseline of smog from burning fossil fuel.