New Delhi: The skies hung heavy and acrid over the national capital and its suburbs on Friday with the air quality dipping to the hazardous severe plus category, prompting a Supreme Court mandated committee to step in and declare a public health emergency.
As smog enveloped the city in grey, many people moved around with masks and others stayed resolutely indoors in what could well be a dystopian nightmare come true, the EPCA banned all construction activity in the Delhi-NCR region till November 5.
The Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority panel also banned the bursting of crackers during the winter.
A Central Pollution Control Board official said the air quality index (AQI) entered the "severe plus" or "emergency" category early Friday morning, the first time since January this year.
According to official data, the overall AQI was 504 at 3.30 am.
An AQI between 0-50 is considered "good", 51-100 "satisfactory", 101-200 "moderate", 201-300 "poor", 301-400 "very poor", and 401-500 "severe". Above 500 is "severe-plus or emergency" category.
If the air quality persists in the "severe plus" category for more than 48 hours, emergency measures such as odd-even car rationing scheme, banning entry of trucks, construction activities and shutting down schools are taken under the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP), the official said.
About 46 per cent of pollution in Delhi on Friday was caused due to stubble burning in neighbouring Punjab and Haryana, the highest this year, government agency SAFAR said.
Faced with the city turning into what he called a gas chamber and in accordance with the GRAP, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said his government had decided to shut all schools till November 5. The odd-even scheme comes into force on November 4 for a fortnight.
"Please write letters to Captain uncle and Khattar uncle and say, 'Please think about our health'," he said in a message to children, referring to Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and Haryana's M L Khattar.
The chief minister also met EPCA chairperson Bhure Lal and assured him of all cooperation in implementing the GRAP.
In a letter to the chief secretaries of Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, Lal sounded a warning.
"The air quality in Delhi and NCR deteriorated further last night and is now at the severe plus level. We have to take this as a public heath emergency as it will have adverse health impacts on all, particularly our children," he wrote.
Under these circumstances, he said, construction activities, hot mix plants and stone crushers in Delhi, Faridabad, Gurgaon, Ghaziabad, Noida and Greater Noida will remain closed till November 5.
Earlier, the EPCA had banned construction activities only for the period between 6 pm and 10 am till November 2. Now, no construction can take place even in daytime.
EPCA directed that all coal and other fuel-based industries, which have not shifted to natural gas or agro-residue, will remain shut in places such as Faridabad, Gurgaon, Ghaziabad, Noida, Bahadurgarh and Bhiwadi till November 5.
In Delhi, industries which have not yet shifted to piped natural gas, will not operate during the period, it said. The panel also asked schools to curtail all outdoor activities and sports till November 5 "People have also been advised to not exercise in the open till the pollution level reduces and special care should be taken of the children, aged and vulnerable population, Lal wrote.
As air pollution reached alarming levels, hospitals reported a surge in the number of patients suffering from respiratory and breathing complications.
"Patients are coming with complaints of watery eyes, cough, breathing difficulty, allergy, exacerbation of asthma and and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD)," AIIMS Director Randeep Guleria said, adding that children and those above the age of 60 are the worst affected.
Besides affecting lungs, high levels of pollutants in the atmosphere cause inflammation in blood vessels and may lead to hardening of arteries which can act as a trigger for stroke or heart attack in persons already at risk of the disease, Guleria explained.
Delhi-based engineer Mohit Tomar is one of those affected.
The resident of Dilshad Colony said he goes to Yamuna Sports Complex for running and other activities, but has stopped his morning routine and has stuck to indoor activities.
All the 37 air quality monitoring stations across Delhi recorded the air quality in the severe category on Friday morning.
Bawana was the most-polluted area with an AQI of 497, followed by Delhi Technological University (487), Wazirpur (485), Anand Vihar (484) and Vivek Vihar (482).
Neighbouring Ghaziabad was the most polluted city in the country with levels of PM2.5 -- tiny particulate matter less than 2.5 microns that can enter deep into the lungs -- reaching as high as 493.
Greater Noida (480), Noida (477), and Faridabad (432) also breathed extremely polluted air.
"Intake of every 22 micrograms per cubic metre of polluted air is equivalent to smoking a cigarette. So whether the PM2.5 level is 700 or 300 units, the impact is still as bad," said Dr Arvind Kumar, lung surgeon at the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital.
The AQI takes into account five chief pollutants -- particulate matter with a diameter less than 10 micrometres (PM10), PM2.5, ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and carbon monoxide (CO).
The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution and health concerns.