TIME India

India’s Capital Chokes Under the Worst Smog in Decades

Air quality has plummeted as a thick haze envelops the city of more than 25 million people

If you couldn’t smell and taste the toxic filth hanging in the air, you might think that winter had come early to the Indian capital, New Delhi.

For several days now, the bustling South Asian metropolis has been blanketed by a dense haze that has reduced visibility in parts of the city to just a few hundred meters. Even in the middle of the afternoon, it is hard to make out the color of traffic signals at some of the city’s busier junctions. But it is still warm — although the evenings are growing cooler, daytime temperatures remain at above 80°F — and the gray pall enveloping the city has a sharp burning smell, tastes like dirt and makes eyes water.

That’s because the haze isn’t winter fog — it’s smog, a dangerous mixture of pollutants that has returned to the city with record force. Delhi’s air quality has been deteriorating for years. Breakneck growth, coupled with scant official regard for the environmental impact of the city’s rapid expansion, has turned it into one of the world’s most polluted urban centers. The problem tends to worsen in the autumn and winter months, when pollutants belched out by the city’s industrial areas and growing swarm of cars are supplemented by fumes from firecrackers burned during Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, observed this year on Oct. 30. Giant fires lit by farmers in neighboring states to clear their lands for the winter crop-planting season add to the annual scourge, spreading smoke across northern India. Delhi’s landlocked geography magnifies the impact of these factors; unlike in coastal cities like India’s commercial and business hub Mumbai, where dirty air is more easily flushed out over the Arabian Sea, the pollutants linger over the national capital, especially when wind speeds fall, as they have over recent days.

The upshot this year: air quality has plummeted to a point not seen in nearly two decades, according to the Centre for Science and Environment, an environmental advocacy group.

As levels of the most harmful airborne particles climbed to 16 times the safe limit, local officials were finally forced to act over the weekend. Emergency measures were announced to shut schools and suspend all construction work to stop the spread of dust. A large coal-based power plant on Delhi’s outskirts that in the past has been singled out as a major source of pollutants has been shut down until mid-November, while the city government said it was considering bringing back road rationing to tackle the crisis. “Pollution has increased to an extent that [the] outdoors in Delhi are resembling a gas chamber,” Delhi’s top elected official, Arvind Kejriwal, said on Saturday.

Read More: Pollution in India’s Capital, New Delhi, Reaches Peak Levels After Diwali Weekend

Every aspect of life in the city of more than 25 million people has been affected. State-level cricket contests have been postponed, as players complained of headaches from the foul air, and reduced visibility has been blamed for road accidents. On Nov. 3, the haze was said to have caused a 20-car pileup that injured at least 12 people. Meanwhile, an increasing number of residents are reported to be seeking medical help for respiratory illnesses triggered by Delhi’s toxic pollution.

The exposure can be life-threatening. One report published last year said Delhi’s worsening air quality was responsible for as many 30,000 deaths each year. Another survey, which looked at the impact of air pollution on children, found that schoolkids in Delhi had weaker lungs compared with their counterparts in other large Indian cities. As protection, those who can afford them are buying up masks and air purifiers, with retailers reporting brisk sales in recent days.

Many, however, have no choice but to stay outdoors. “I’m coughing more and I don’t want to be outside, but what can do I?” says Ramesh Kumar, a bicycle rickshaw driver who plies his trade in and around an industrial zone in South-West Delhi. The haze has been giving him headaches, and he finds it increasingly difficult to navigate the city’s congested streets. “I just hope someone doesn’t drive their truck into my rickshaw at night. You can’t see anything after dark, and I don’t have lights like them.”

“Maybe they can hear me coughing,” he adds with a dark, throaty chuckle as the smog blackens the horizon.

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