A cloud of toxic smog has forced residents in New Delhi to stay indoors, closed factories and schools, diverted flights and halted building works this week.
With India declaring a public health emergency in recent days, the heavy pollution — caused by industrial production, vehicles and farmers burning field stubble — has scared off tourists to the Indian capital and other northern cities.
This is the worst time of year for pollution in New Delhi, one of the world’s most polluted cities. Visibility on some days is as poor as 50 metres and the poor air quality is expected to persist until January.
Pollution levels on the Air Quality Index have reached between 200-300, many times above the safe level of 50. Last month the readings hit more than 400, prompting Arvind Kejriwal, New Delhi’s chief minister, to say the capital city had “turned into a gas chamber”.
The financial costs are also mounting. “The economic impact is the direct effect of pollution on health and lost productivity,” said Karthik Ganesan from the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a Delhi-based think-tank.
“The service sector and tourism are hit, too. Usually tourists want to see the ‘Golden Triangle’ — Delhi, Jaipur and Agra — but those cities are some of the worst affected by pollution.”
Total welfare costs related to pollution amounted to $505bn, approximately 7.7 per cent of India’s gross domestic product in 2013, according to the World Bank. While the emergency measures may help reduce some emissions, better-off New Delhi residents have invested in air-filtration systems and purifiers, and sealed their windows and doors. The rest rely on masks or nothing at all.
Dr Anil Sachdev
Paediatrician at Sir Ganga Ram hospital
“When I was a child, I remember we used to see blue sky and the birds chirping here and there but now you hardly see any birds chirping and it’s always a grey sky,” said Dr Anil Sachdev.
“The kids are suffering more and with the severity of the problem, the severity of symptoms is also increasing.”
More than 620m children in south Asia breathe polluted air, according to Unicef, which called on the Indian government to take “urgent action to address the air quality crisis”.
Amol Arora, managing director at the Shemrock pre-school chain, said his schools have a later start time — 9am instead of the normal 7.30am or 8am — to avoid the worst pollution in the morning. The schools have also installed a double air filtration system.
“Today, children carrying a nebuliser [a device used to treat asthma] in Delhi is very common,” said Mr Arora. “It’s almost criminal not to be giving our children clean air.” But, with a tuition fee of Rs60,000 ($845) a year, only New Delhi’s elite can afford to send their children to these private preschools.
Mother, out buying air purifiers
For those selling air purifiers, business has never been better. “I’ve travelled about 1 hour 10 mins to come to this shop,” said Pearl Bahal, who came to Delhi to buy two large air purifiers for her country home. “We just want to be safe to some extent. And it’s a lot of money,” she said.
A Sharp air purifier that can clean the air in a 200 sq ft room costs around Rs16,000.
Just a handful of companies used to make air purifiers, said Sanjiv Luthra, who sells the devices. Now a wide variety of brands are on the market, including Philips, BlueAir, Xiaomi and Honeywell. Mr Luthra said that monthly sales increased by 25 per cent since pollution levels surged this year.
Nitin Malhotra, chief executive of 247around, a company that services home appliances, said the jump in business was not only limited to Delhi.
“We see major growth up north in states like Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, as the pollution transfers to those locations,” said Mr Malhotra.
India is home to 15 of the 20 most polluted cities on the planet, reports IQAir, an air quality data company. The pollution stretches across the north of the Indian subcontinent and into Pakistan, where air quality in Lahore was so bad on Thursday that schools were closed.
General manager at The Imperial Hotel
“Pollution does affect business in the city, especially when we talk about overseas leisure guests,” said Vijay Wanchoo at The Imperial, one of Delhi’s oldest five-star hotels. “The focus is on the fact that indoor air is a major deciding factor for guests . . . and is becoming a selling point today,” he added. Travel agencies have reported a fall in Delhi tourist numbers that they attribute to the hazardous environment.
To retain customers, Mr Wanchoo said the hotel is in the process of installing air filtration systems and special air cleaners that are designed to reduce particularly dangerous PM 2.5 particles, which penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream.
Other companies are looking for a silver lining in the relentless smog. Uber launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #LeaveYourCarBehind, encouraging people to stop driving cars and use public transport — and the ride-hailing app — instead.
ZunRoof, a rooftop solar company, released an advertisement saying “Be part of the solution. Not part of the pollution”. PolicyBazaar, an online insurance aggregator, posted a photo on Instagram of a face mask on social media with the question: “Covered your loved ones yet?”
Upanita Chakravarty said that when India declared a public health emergency, universities were not ordered to close but students decided not to go to class on the worst days. “You love your body more than anything else and you want to protect it no matter what,” said Ms Chakravarty, who is studying environment and development.
Not so long ago, Indians would look forward to winter, when the blazing heat finally relented and people rolled out their picnic mats in parks to sip steaming cups of tea under bright blue skies.
But in the weeks since Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights that marks the start of the cooler, dryer season, the pollution has been so severe that there has been no relief.
Instead of venturing out into the dirty air, the students and faculty decided to meet virtually using Google Hangouts. “The last two years [the weather has] been really changing. Just after Diwali, the weather changes,” said Ms Chakravarty. “It’s not cloud, it’s smog.”
Graphics by Steve Bernard