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Toxic air in India declared public health emergency

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A federal government mandated panel said air pollution in India's capital and its suburbs over the last week has worsened to levels that should be treated as a public health emergency.

[NEW DELHI] A federal government mandated panel said air pollution in India's capital and its suburbs over the last week has worsened to levels that should be treated as a public health emergency.

The air quality index, or AQI, hit as high as 744 at some areas in the Indian capital at 9.30am on Saturday, according to website AirVisual, which monitors air pollution around the world. Readings above 300 are considered hazardous and 50 is the safe level.

The toxic air quality - the result of a combination of factors from construction dust to vehicular emissions and farm stubble burning in areas around Delhi to wind conditions - prompted the state government to order schools shut until Nov 5.

That lethal cocktail was made worse by the bursting of firecrackers to celebrate the Hindu festival of Diwali on Oct 27, Bhure Lal, chairman of the Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority for the national capital region, said in a letter to administrations in the national capital and the states surrounding it.

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The air quality dipped sharply on Diwali day as many people flouted a Supreme Court order to curb burning of firecrackers. The police have arrested some people who violated the court directive but that had a limited impact.

The smoke from stubble fires from fields across north India is an annual air quality disaster as efforts to provide cultivators with a viable alternative have faltered.

After rice, wheat or other grain is harvested, the stubble that remains must be removed before the next planting cycle. This was once removed manually and used as cattle feed, or to make cardboard. But over the last decade or so farmers have switched to using a machine called a combine harvester that leaves 80 per cent of the residue in the field as loose straw that ends up being burned. Disposal by means other than burning - such as plowing it into a fine layer of field cover - costs time and money, two things that farmers say they can't afford.

Farmers need alternatives to stop stubble burning as it's expensive for them to remove rice straw from the field after harvesting, according to V.M. Singh, convener of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, a farmers' group.

"Give us some alternatives as we are forced to do this," Mr Singh said on Thursday in New Delhi. 

The government panel monitoring air quality has asked states to do the following:

- Ban construction activity in Delhi, Gurugram, Ghaziabad, Faridabad, Noida and Greater Noida until the morning of Nov 5.

- Hot mix plants and stone crushers operating in these areas are to also remain shut until that time.

- Coal and other fuel-based industries, except those using natural gas or agro-residue, to remain closed in major industrial cities in the region until the morning of Nov 5. Power plants have been exempted from this restriction.

- Bursting of fire crackers is completely banned during winter.

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