New Delhi Considers Lockdown, But Not for COVID, as Smog Chokes City of 20 Million

As smog covered New Delhi and neighboring states Wednesday, India is considering a lockdown in an attempt to reduce dangerous levels of air pollution, the Associated Press reported.

Authorities closed schools indefinitely and closed some coal-burning plants Wednesday to help curb the crisis. The city has more than 20 million people and is heavily reliant on coal, which accounts for 70 percent of the country's power.

Dangerous particles in New Delhi's air Wednesday were seven times higher than the safe level, in some parts of the city climbing about 300 micrograms per cubic meter. The World Health Organization designates the safe level as 25.

It's not clear how extensive the lockdown would be. The New Delhi state government is open to the idea of a weekend lockdown and is awaiting approval from India's supreme court.

In addition to school closures, the Commission for Air Quality management ordered construction to be stopped until November 21, and trucks carrying non-essential goods are not allowed to travel.

Some experts argue a lockdown would achieve very little in controlling pollution and instead would cause disruptions in the economy and harm the livelihoods of millions of people.

"This is not the solution that we are looking for, because this is hugely disruptive," said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director at the Center for Science and Environment, a research and advocacy organization in New Delhi. "And we also have to keep in mind that the economy is already under pressure, poor people are at risk."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

India, Air Pollution, lock down
Commuters drive amid morning haze and toxic smog in New Delhi, India, on November 17, 2021. Schools were closed indefinitely and some coal-based power plants shut down as the Indian capital and neighboring states invoked harsh measures Wednesday to combat air pollution after an order from the federal environment ministry panel. Manish Swarup/AP Photo

Residents say the government isn't doing enough.

Suresh Chand Jain, a New Delhi shop owner, said authorities should introduce stricter regulations to limit car use and control the burning of crop residue.

"Shutting down the city will not end the pollution," Jain said.

Experts say such emergency measures are not helpful in the long run.

"These are done only to ensure that you don't worsen the situation, that you shave off the peak. But it is not a silver bullet that is going to just clean the air immediately," Roychowdhury said.

Soaring pollution levels in the capital prompted a federal environment ministry panel to issue strict guidelines Tuesday night to stem the pollution and show residents that the government is taking action against a crisis that has plagued the city for years.

Forecasters warned air quality will worsen before the arrival of cold winds next week that will blow away the smog.

Earlier this month, air pollution reached the "severe" level in the capital, and residents faced bouts of heavy, multiday pollution. That prompted the Supreme Court last week to order state and federal governments to take "imminent and emergency" action. New Delhi authorities responded by proposing a lockdown and closing schools for a week.

Among the many Indian cities gasping for breath, New Delhi tops the list every year.

Auto emissions contribute nearly 25 percent of the city's pollution in the winter, according to the federal government. The crisis deepens in the cold-weather months when the burning of crop residue in neighboring states coincides with lower temperatures that trap smoke. That smoke travels to New Delhi.

The capital has often experimented with limiting the number of cars on the road, using large anti-smog guns and halting construction. But the steps have had little effect.

Emissions from industries with no pollution-control technology, smoke from firecrackers linked to festivals, and construction dust also sharply increase in winter months.

Several studies have estimated that more than a million Indians die each year because of air pollution-related diseases.

New Delhi, India air polution
The Yamuna River is seen covered by a chemical foam caused by industrial and domestic pollution as the skyline is enveloped in a blanket of toxic smog in New Delhi, India, on November 17, 2021. Schools were closed indefinitely and some coal-based power plants shut down as the Indian capital and neighboring states invoked harsh measures Wednesday to combat air pollution after an order from the federal environment ministry panel. Manish Swarup/AP Photo