Opinion | Editorial Choking on Air in New Delhi

One year after a record-breaking toxic haze blanketed New Delhi, prompting school closings, car pileups and flight delays, the smog is back and it’s worse than ever. It has reached levels nearly 30 times what the World Health Organization considers safe, or the equivalent of smoking more than two packs of cigarettes a day.

On Tuesday, the Indian Medical Association declared the situation a “public health emergency.” The current haze comes on top of air pollution so bad it killed 2.5 million people in India in 2015, according to an article published last month in the medical journal The Lancet — more than in any other country.

The main culprit that turns New Delhi, already one of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, into what Delhi State’s chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, called “a gas chamber,” is the annual burning of crop stubble by farmers in nearby states who are too poor to clear their fields for replanting by less polluting means. But rather than help farmers afford the equipment they need to clear stubble without burning it, turn it into compost or use it to generate biogas, state governments simply issue bans that nobody pays much attention to.

The visibility is so poor it’s hard to make out the colors of traffic lights at intersections. The deputy chief minister of Delhi State, Manish Sisodia, ordered the closing of some 4,000 schools after seeing children vomiting out the window of a school bus ferrying them through the acrid air on Wednesday. While wealthier citizens can afford indoor air purifiers and masks to filter bad air when they venture outdoors, there is no relief for the poor.

A ban by India’s Supreme Court on firecrackers during the Hindu festival of Diwali last month brought temporary relief. To further reduce the dust, Delhi’s government has reintroduced an alternate day limit on the use of private cars, prohibited heavy trucks from entering the city and halted some construction projects. But it is crop burning that has pushed the area’s already high pollution level off the charts.

A hodgepodge of stopgap measures is clearly not up to the task of checking this spiraling air-pollution crisis. India’s gasping millions need Prime Minister Narendra Modi to demonstrate some of the strong leadership he promised when he was elected in 2014. In this case, he could and should swiftly launch an emergency national action plan that includes funds for state governments to help farmers move quickly to other means of disposing of crop stubble.

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