Northern India chokes on toxic smog day after Diwali festival

People make their way along a street amid smoggy conditions in New Delhi on Nov 15, 2020.
People make their way along a street amid smoggy conditions in New Delhi on Nov 15, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

CHENNAI (REUTERS) - Hundreds of millions of Indians in north India woke up on Sunday (Nov 15) to toxic air following Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, after many revellers defied bans on using firecrackers to celebrate.

The capital New Delhi was blanketed with a thick haze, with the average pollution level in the capital over nine times what is considered safe by the World Health Organisation.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had banned use and sale of firecrackers ahead of Diwali, also known as Deepavali, but the policy has been difficult to implement.

Residents in the capital let off huge amounts of fireworks to celebrate the festival well into the early hours of Sunday morning, prompting angry residents and environmentalists to complain on social media of breathing difficulties and stinging eyes.

“Our gods must be so happy today, that their followers burst firecrackers and choked the young ones to despair and death,” said Vimlendu Jha, the founder of non-profit environmental group Swechha.

Some defended firecrackers as an essential part of a religious tradition celebrated by millions across the country.

“Are you realising how all of India, all places stood up in defiance against the cracker ban? It’s like a form of Hindu-freedom battle cry,” Tarun Vijay, a leader of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, tweeted.

New Delhi's air pollution typically worsens in October and November due to farmers burning agricultural waste, along with coal-fired power plants in surrounding states, traffic fumes and windless days.

The raging coronavirus epidemic, with more than 400,000 confirmed cases in the city of 20 million, has also heightened alarm over the health hazard posed by the choking smog, with doctors warning of a sharp increase in respiratory illnesses.

Cities in the states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Bihar and New Delhi - which have already been suffering from some of the worst air in the world - saw even higher levels of pollution than on the morning after Diwali last year, government data analysed by Reuters showed.

An average of air quality indices measured at different places within the major cities in these states was higher than last year, according to data from the Central Pollution Control Board.