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New Delhi: Millions of people in India’s capital started the week Monday choking through “eye-burning” smog, with schools closed, cars taken off the road and construction halted.

A poisonous haze envelops New Delhi every winter, caused by vehicle fumes, industrial emissions and smoke from agricultural burning in neighbouring states. But the current crisis has turned into the worst in three years, and New Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal called for a range of measures to fight what he described as “unbearable pollution”.

“There is smoke everywhere and people, including youngsters, kids, elderly are finding it difficult to breathe,” he said in a Twitter video. “Eyes are burning. Pollution is that bad.”

Kejriwal’s government has ordered half the city’s private cars to be taken off the road, based on an odd-even registration plate system. Schools, which were closed on Friday last week, remained shut on Monday, and citywide construction was halted until Tuesday in Delhi and surrounding areas. Kejriwal said authorities were also distributing face masks to schoolchildren.

How bad is the pollution level this time?

A government monitor on Sunday showed air quality had hit the worst level for the year, at 494 on a scale of 500. The US Embassy air quality index, which measures the concentration of tiny PM 2.5 particles, exceeded 500, indicating serious aggravation of heart and lung disease, and premature mortality in people with existing diseases and the elderly. According to independent online air quality index monitor AirVisual, New Delhi was the most polluted major city in the world on Monday, at twice the level of Lahore in Pakistan, which was a distant second.

What is the impact of breathing such toxic air?

Pollution at this level means serious risk of effects on the respiratory systems of the general population. The city government has declared a public health emergency, and imposed an “odd-even” system on private vehicles, at least until November 15. On Monday, drivers with even-numbered license plates were the lucky ones. Morning traffic was thin and drivers appeared to be obeying the rule — a reporter saw no vehicles with odd-numbered licence plates on the streets. “It’s a huge inconvenience because I’m not going to make it on time for my meetings,” said Sagar Bajaj, 29, struggling to find a taxi in central Delhi’s busy Connaught Place. Bajaj said he normally drives to work but his car’s licence plate ends in and odd number.

What about the politics of pollution?

With a state election due in Delhi in early 2020, the pollution crisis has also become a casualty of political bickering, with each side blaming the other for the severe conditions. Kejriwal, who likened Delhi to a “gas chamber” on Friday, said his government had done its part to curb pollution and that the burning of wheat stubble residue on farms outside the capital was responsible for the smog. But federal Indian environment minister Prakash Javadekar accused Kejriwal of politicising the issue, while an MP from the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dismissed the odd-even car rule as a “stunt” and said he planned to ignore it.

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A group of environmentalists wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday urging him to “take leadership” on the issue. The environmentalists said political parties were “intent on fixing the blame while Indians continue to die.”

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Why does this toxic smog happen every year?

Air pollution in New Delhi and northern Indian states peaks in the winter as farmers in neighbouring agricultural regions set fire to clear land after the harvest and prepare for the next crop season. The pollution in the Indian capital also peaks after Diwali celebrations, the Hindu festival of light, when people set off fireworks. Vehicle and industrial emissions, pollutants from firecrackers, and construction dust sharply increase each winter, exacerbating what is already a public health crisis. Last year, the New Delhi government ordered firefighters to sprinkle water from high-rise buildings to settle dust, stopped garbage fires and ordered builders to cover construction sites to stop dust enveloping the area as hazardous air quality affected millions of people.

What needs to be done to change the situation?

World Health Organisation data released last year gave India the dubious distinction of having the world’s 10 most polluted cities, and India has faced a mounting pollution crisis over the past decade. Experts warn that both state and national governments needed to go beyond short-term remedies and tackle major pollution causes if air quality is to improve in the long-term.

Stop-gap solutions “can’t be a substitute for addressing the major long-term chronic sources of air pollution,” said Daniel Cass, senior vice president for environmental health of global non-profit Vital Strategies. He said emissions restrictions should be imposed on motorbikes and scooters, which are heavily used in Delhi but exempted from the odd-even scheme, and called for more public transport investment. Changing agricultural practices, switching electricity generation sources and accelerating the conversion of home-heating from charcoal to natural gas were also key measures in the pollution fight, Cass said.

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Meanwhile the Indian Supreme Court on Monday held state governments responsible for the toxic air pollution in the National Capital Region (NCR) and said “those at the helm seem interested only in gimmicks”.

The comments by the top court came during the hearing of air-pollution case being heard by Justice Arun Mishra and Deepak Gupta. Additional Solicitor-General ANS Nadkarni appeared on behalf of the federal government.

“People are dying … More people will die but those at the helm seem interested only in gimmicks. We will supervise this matter now. Crop stubble burning must stop immediately and all states must do everything to stop it,” the court said. “State governments are responsible. All of them … they are interested only in electioneering. State governments are making a mockery of everything. We are going to hold them responsible now, from top to the bottom,” said Justice Arun Mishra. He asked the government to urgently consult environment experts from IIT Delhi and to suggest immediate steps to be taken to deal with the crisis. “It is torture, and all officials … should be held accountable. We must do something now,” the court said.

Describing the situation as “grim,” the court also asked the central and Delhi governments: “What do you intend to do as to reduce this pollution? Even in a bedroom in Lutyen’s Delhi, the Air Quality Index is more than 500. Air purifier can’t work. Can we survive in this fashion?”

Delhi ministers carpool and cycle to work

Top Delhi cabinet ministers led by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal were seen carpooling and cycling their way to the Secretariat as the third Odd-Even car rationing scheme kicked-off on Monday. The ministers are not exempted from the scheme. “Share a car, this will increase friendship, build relationships, save petrol and reduce pollution,” Kejriwal tweeted in the morning. Hours later, he joined his ministers and neighbours Gopal Rai and Satyendar Jain to take a car from his residence to the Secretariat. Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, like previous years, cycled from his home on Mathura Road to his office.

Taj Mahal gets an air purifier

As smog levels in New Delhi exceeded those of Beijing by more than three times, authorities also parked a van with an air purifier near the Taj Mahal — the iconic 17th-century marble mausoleum 250km south of Delhi — in a bid to clean the air in its surrounds. With the pollution causing a rush of respiratory complaints at hospitals and the diversion of 37 flights on Sunday, a new law came into effect restricting cars from the capital’s roads to alternative days, depending on if their number plate ends in an odd or even number. More than 600 police teams were deployed at road intersections in the capital with the power to hand out fines of 4,000 rupees (nearly $60) to transgressors

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“Given that most diplomats live in the national capital [of New Delhi], steps should have been taken in time to address the issue of pollution. This is definitely bad publicity … We need to address it on a war footing. Let us not get in to blame calling. This has not been created overnight. [Pollution] has been there for the last 25 years.”

Surjit Bhalla, India’s representative to the International Monetary Fund

“There is smoke everywhere and people, including youngsters, kids, elderly are finding it difficult to breathe. Eyes are burning. Pollution is that bad.”

Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi Chief Minister

“Odd-Even [car restrictions] will be for a few days, it’s only for cars … Why the buses have not come on the roads in the last five years when they were promised? These are things which the Delhi government should have done … The central government does what it has to do.”

Nalin Kohli, BJP spokesperson

“I have a headache every day when I wake up. It’s suffocating to breathe sometimes. And inflammation in the nostrils and all. And eyes also. Like it kind of burns.”

Ankusha Kushi, Delhi-based student

“In October and November, the air in Delhi becomes poisonous. This happens primarily because of stubble burning in neighbouring states. When everybody is saying that air pollution is happening because of stubble burning, why isn’t the central government acting on it?”

Raghav Chadha, AAP leader in Delhi

“I will oppose Odd-Even scheme. I will hold a symbolic protest to send out a message to the people that Odd-Even is of no use. All pollution controlling agencies have said that banning cars alone will be of no use.”

Vijay Goel, Senior BJP leader