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A man wears a mask as he walks on a smoggy morning in New Delhi on Nov. 3, 2019. The air-quality index deteriorated to above 900, way more than the 500-level that qualifies as 'severe-plus.'ADNAN ABIDI/Reuters

Air pollution in New Delhi and surrounding towns reached the worst levels so far this year on Sunday, with authorities in the world’s most polluted capital city having already declared a public-health emergency and ordered the closing of schools.

The air-quality index, measuring levels of PM 2.5 – tiny particulate matter in the air – deteriorated to above 900, way more than the 500-level that qualifies as “severe-plus.”

Aside from the harm it was doing to the lungs of some 40 million people living in the capital region, the smog was so bad that more than 30 flights were diverted from Delhi airport wing to poor visibility.

Roads looked deserted as large numbers of people stayed home, rather than expose themselves to the noxious atmosphere outside.

“Pollution has reached unbearable levels across north India,” Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s Chief Minister said in a message on Twitter.

The government environment-monitoring agency SAFAR warned that no relief was expected for the next one to two days, as humidity resulting from unexpected light rains overnight had exacerbated pollution, already driven by higher the seasonal crop stubble burning by farmers in the surrounding states.

“Wind speed is picking up and it could take 24 to 48 hours before the pollution level reduces to a level of around 500,” said Mahesh Palawat, vice-president of Skymet, a private weather-forecasting agency.

Anything more than 400 on the AQI poses a risk for people with respiratory illness and can also affect even those with healthy lungs.

Doctors were reporting a spike in patients with respiratory-related issues, according to Sachin Taparia, head of Local Circles, a Delhi-based private consultancy that conducts surveys on government policies and programs.

“Delhi has turned into a gas chamber as the pollution levels hit the ‘severe+’ category,” Mr. Taparia said.

A survey of 17,000 people in the Delhi region by his consultancy found that 40 per cent want to get out of the Delhi region because of the failure to control pollution.

Authorities in Delhi on Friday declared a public-health emergency and closed schools and all construction activity.

From Monday, the city government will also restrict the use of private vehicles on the capital’s roads under an “odd-even” scheme based on licence plates.

“The temporary restrictions on private vehicles will have a negligible impact as we face the most hazardous situation,” said Skymet’s Mr. Palawat.

Delhi’s Mr. Kejriwal, and the chief ministers from the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana, urged the federal government to do more to combat the pollution.

On Monday, according to a lawyer, the Indian Supreme Court is likely to hear a petition on Monday from the environment agency, looking for ways to make state governments to take tougher action against farmers to curb the stubble-burning. Politicians have been reluctant to upset their farming constituencies.

According to SAFAR, satellite pictures had captured more than 3,000 incidents of stubble burning last week in neighbouring states, contributing to 44 per cent of Delhi’s pollution.

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