NEW DELHI // The haze that clouded the Indian Grand Prix two weekends ago continues to hang over New Delhi, with the capital registering its poorest air quality levels in a decade. For nearly 10 days now, the sky has been blotted by a grey pall of dust and smoke, leading to low visibility and scant sunshine.
According to a monitoring system run by the ministry of earth sciences, the levels of PM2.5 particulates - particulate matter measuring 2.5 microns or smaller - varied between 210 and 250 in locations across the city yesterday afternoon.
The US environmental protection agency labels any PM2.5 level above 200 "very unhealthy", because these particulates - thrown up by vehicle exhausts and coal-burning power plants - can easily infiltrate the lungs and accumulate there, causing respiratory diseases. Doctors have advised people to wear surgical masks over their nose and mouth.
More than 3,000 premature deaths occur annually due to air pollution-related diseases, according to a report published on June 5, World Environment Day, by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a New Delhi-based non-profit.
Unchecked, the report warned, New Delhi would, by 2021, "gasp for breath, pay unacceptable fuel costs and spew warming gases like never before".
The haze is only partly a result of natural circumstances, said Jatin Singh, who runs Skymet Weather Services, which provides forecast data to corporations and farmers.
"The cyclone [Nilam] in the south has generated a lot of moisture all over India, and over New Delhi, something called an inversion layer has set in," Mr Singh said yesterday. "Cooler air settles, the moisture collects dust and smoke around itself, and there's no wind to blow it away. The minute the wind picks up, this haze should disperse."
Such wind, however, does not figure in the weather forecast for the next three or four days.
But such intensely hazy days in New Delhi were beginning to appear earlier and earlier every year, Mr Singh said, and "that's because the number of vehicles in the city is going up; there's a lot more construction activity, and the city's green cover is being depleted."
According to government statistics, New Delhi adds between 1,000 and 1,200 vehicles to its roads every day; 90 per cent of these are personal vehicles. The city's aggregate of 6.5 million vehicles is greater than the number of vehicles in Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata put together.
New Delhi's air quality had deteriorated so rapidly through the 1990s that, in 1998, public transport buses and autorickshaws were ordered by the supreme court to switch to using compressed natural gas as fuel.
As a result, the growth in the levels of suspended particulate matter in New Delhi slowed. But as vehicles continued to multiply on the roads, average particulate matter levels still increased - from 110 micrograms per cubic metre in 2005, to 154 in 2007, to nearly 250 in 2012.
The 2012 figure is four times the prescribed limit, according to a presentation made by The Energy and Resources Institute this year.
"Whatever little gains were made after the switch to CNG have now been lost," Anumita Roy Chowdhury, an executive director at CSE, said. "From 2007 onwards, the level of pollution has been rising steadily. The problem is growing more rapidly than our ability to control it."
The city needs to increase public transport options, but it also "needs to have car users and owners pay the real costs of owning and using a car, in terms of higher taxes and higher parking charges," she said. "Right now, we are focusing on facilitating cars by widening roads and building flyovers for them. That focus has to be reversed."