What India Looks Like When the Air Turns to Poison

NEW DELHI — Air pollution in India’s capital climbed to poisonous extremes over the weekend and into Monday, blanketing streets in an opaque haze, delaying flights and prompting fights between politicians over who was to blame.

Every winter, farmers in northern India burn crops to make room for a new harvest. The fumes drift toward New Delhi and its suburbs, mixing with construction dust, vehicle emissions and smoke from fireworks displays during Diwali, the Hindu festival of light. A toxic cloud can linger for weeks, causing coughs, headaches and even highway pileups.

This year, the pollution has become so dire that the Indian government declared a public health emergency on Friday, shutting all primary schools for days and halting construction projects. NASA satellite imagery showed large swathes of India’s northern plains smothered by haze.

In many areas over the weekend, levels of deadly particulate matter reached around 60 times the global safety threshold, or the equivalent of smoking more than two packs of cigarettes a day. People huddled around air purifiers, sealed door cracks with towels and prayed for rain.

To try to curtail the pollution, officials in New Delhi on Monday started restricting the use of private vehicles on alternating days, allowing only cars with odd-number license plates to drive on odd dates and cars with even-numbered plates on even-numbered dates.