India to spray capital from on high amid deepening smog emergency

India plans to spray water over its capital, New Delhi, to combat toxic smog that has triggered a pollution emergency, officials said on Friday, with conditions expected to worsen over the weekend.

Illegal crop burning largely to blame for smog levels 10 times the acceptable level in Delhi

Nikunj Pandey, left, sits with his friends wearing pollution masks in New Delhi on Thursday. Experts say smog in the city is so bad that breathing the air is comparable to smoking a couple of packs of cigarettes a day. (Manish Swarup/Associated Press)

India plans to spray water over its capital, New Delhi, to combat toxic smog that has triggered a pollution emergency, officials said on Friday, with conditions expected to worsen over the weekend.

Illegal crop burning in farm states surrounding New Delhi, vehicle exhaust in a city with limited public transport, and swirling construction dust have caused the crisis, as they do every year.

"Sprinkling water is the only way to bring down the dangerous pollution levels," said Shruti Bhardwaj, an environmental official charged with monitoring air quality.

A commuter wears a basic face covering in an effort to protect himself from heavy smog on a street in New Delhi. India's capital has reeled under dense smog that has disrupted air and railway services and forced residents to stay indoors or wear protection when they venture outside. (Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images)

The government was finalizing the plans to spray the water from a height of 100 metres, which would be unprecedented, she said, without saying how much of the city of 22 million people would be covered.

The thick blanket of grey air and pollutants has enveloped Delhi for the past four days. A U.S. Embassy measure of tiny particulate matter, called PM 2.5, showed a reading of 523 at 9 a.m. on Friday — the outer limit of "good" air is 50.

I have installed six air purifiers in my home and closed all the windows, but my eyes are still watering.- Ranveer Singhal, Delhi resident

PM 2.5 is about 30 times finer than a human hair. The particles can be inhaled deep into the lungs, causing heart attacks, strokes, cancer and respiratory diseases.

The air has remained consistently in the "hazardous" category or beyond those levels in recent days, despite a litany of government measures — ordering a halt to construction, restricting car use and raising parking charges fourfold to persuade residents to use public transport.

Alternate days for cars

Commercial trucks are now banned from the city unless they are transporting essential commodities and the Delhi transport department said it reintroduced an "odd-even" scheme under which cars with licence plates ending in an odd number are allowed one day and even-numbered cars the next day.

The scheme was introduced in the Chinese capital of Beijing a decade ago to fight traffic and pollution with mixed success.

Workers use brooms to sweep away dust in the morning fog in Greater Noida, near New Delhi, on Friday. The thick haze of smog has been created by the burning of crops, emissions from factories, and the burning of coal and piles of garbage as the poor try to keep warm. (R.S. Iyer/Associated Press)

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of Delhi, called the capital a "gas chamber" earlier this week. Affluent residents and large private companies have been placing bulk orders for air purifiers and filtration masks.

"I have installed six air purifiers in my home and closed all the windows, but my eyes are still watering," said Ranveer Singhal, a commodity trader living in a leafy neighbourhood of the city.

Organizers of music festivals and open air parties have cancelled events after the Central Pollution Control Board said air quality could deteriorate further during the weekend.

Pronab Sarkar, president of the Indian Association of Tour Operators, said air pollution had also hit tourism.

Tourists on the streets of New Delhi said on Friday (November 10) they would leave the city as thick blanket of toxic smog enveloped the Indian capital and triggered a pollution emergency. Many are wearing masks outdoors and planning early departures.

 At least 2.5 million people in India died early because of pollution in 2015, more than any other country in the world, according to a study by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health.