The measures come as India’s top court is deliberating whether New Delhi should go into a lockdown as a blanket of thick, grey smog continued to surround the city, particularly in the mornings.
The panel issued the guidelines on Tuesday night in an attempt to stem the pollution and to show residents that the government was taking action to control an environmental crisis that has been plaguing the capital for years.
Besides the closure of schools, the Commission for Air Quality Management ordered a stop to construction activities until 21 November and banned trucks carrying non-essential goods. The panel also directed the states to “encourage” work from home for half of the employees in all private offices.
Despite some improvement in New Delhi air over the past two days, readings of dangerous particles on Wednesday were still as high as seven times the safe level, climbing above 300 micrograms per cubic metre in some parts of the city. The World Health Organisation designates the safe level for the tiny, poisonous particles at 25 micrograms.
Forecasters warned that the air quality would worsen before the arrival of cold winds next week which, it is hoped, will blow away the smog.
Earlier this month, air-quality levels in New Delhi fell to the “severe” category in the capital and residents faced bouts of severe, multiday pollution. It prompted a stern warning last week from India’s Supreme Court, which ordered state and federal governments to take “imminent and emergency” measures to tackle what it called a crisis.
The issue of air pollution deepens particularly in the winter when the burning of crop residues in neighbouring states coincides with cooler temperatures that trap deadly smoke. That smoke travels to New Delhi, leading to a surge in pollution in a city of more than 20 million people.
Emissions from industries with no pollution control technology, pollutants 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 every year because of air-pollution-related diseases.
The capital has often experimented with limiting the number of cars on the road to lower vehicular emissions, using large anti-smog guns and halting construction activity, but these steps have had little effect to date.
Experts say such emergency measures are not helpful in the long run. Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director at the Centre for Science and Environment, a research and advocacy organisation in New Delhi, said: “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.”
The air pollution crisis in Delhi immediately follows the final agreement from COP26, in which the wording around a pledge to reduce the burning of coal and other fossil fuels was watered down, much to the dismay of many countries. India, as well as China, had pushed for the softer stance on coal – hardly surprising, given both countries’ continued heavy investment in coal-fired power stations.
Speaking in Glasgow on the first full day of the UN COP26 climate summit, India’a Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had announced that India will aim to increase its share of renewables in its energy mix to 50 per cent by 2030 and reach net-zero CO2 emissions by 2070. While this represents a laudable firm commitment to reducing the country’s emissions, the dates specified are two decades later than similar pledges made by most other countries.
COP26 wrapped up its closing talks over the weekend, but responses to the landmark climate conference have been mixed. While progress has been made on issues such as fossil fuel reliance and electric vehicles, there is a broad sentiment that the world will miss its previous target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C.