A thick blanket of smog descended over Delhi on Monday, in what experts fear is the start of a now annual pollution season that has brought national embarrassment in the past.

Levels of PM2.5 micropollutants reached some 25 times the acceptable limit, as visibility on what would have been an otherwise sunny day dropped to less than a couple of hundred metres on the city’s major thoroughfares.

Experts are concerned that the smog is already so thick with Wednesday’s festival of Diwali, where the smoke of firecrackers adds to the toxic mix, still two days away.

The Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology attributed the pollution to the burning of crop stubble in neighbouring states, and a change in the speed and direction of wind bringing smoke into the capital.

“It’s pretty abysmal right now,” Reecha Upadhyay, an organiser for the Help Delhi Breathe pressure group told The Independent. “People are already coming to us saying ‘my eyes are burning, I’m struggling to breathe’.”

It is a problem that has become alarmingly familiar to Delhi’s citizens. Those who can afford it have been preparing for the smog, with industry analysts estimating a 40 per cent year-on-year increase in purchases of air purifiers for the home.

But it’s those who can’t afford purifiers or even anti-pollution masks who are affected the most. “This is India, most people live and work outside,” said Ms Upadhyay. “If you look around we are essentially breathing smoke all day long, forced to live in a gas chamber.” 

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Doctors are particularly concerned by the impact of pollution on the health of children and pregnant women. Last week a World Health Organisation (WHO) report found that in developing countries, 98 per cent of children are exposed to PM2.5 levels that are considered toxic, compared to 52 per cent of children in high-income countries.

A previous WHO study found that of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, 14 are in India.

“It is like smoking 20 cigarettes a day, and this includes newborns too. Chemicals in the air are so prominent that you can feel them on your lips,” Dr Arvind Kumar, founder of the Lung Care Foundation of India, told The Indian Express.

Two weeks ago Delhi received unflattering headlines once more as runners from around the world spluttered through its annual half marathon, even as the US embassy in the city measured airborne pollutants at eight times the WHO safe maximum.

And last year pollution stopped play during an international cricket Test match in the capital between India and Sri Lanka, with the visiting players donning anti-pollution masks and “continuously vomiting” due to the toxic smog.

Delhi’s pollution crisis is particularly difficult to solve because it stems from so many sources. The city government blames farmers in nearby states who find it cheaper to pay a fine for burning leftover crops in their fields than it would be to hire equipment to collect the detritus.

“Wind speeds dropped to 15 kilometres per hour from 29 [this morning] and there has been a significant jump in crop stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana in the past few hours,” Anumita Roychowdhury, an executive director at the Centre for Science and Environment thinktank, told Reuters.

Meanwhile, the chief minister of the most populous neighbouring state, Punjab, on Sunday said it was Delhi’s own failure to tackle car emissions, industrial activities and waste burning that was to blame for the smog.

Added to these is the impending Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, when the custom of lighting fireworks is so ingrained that previous attempts to ban them have been an abject failure.

This year, the Supreme Court has given permission for the use of “green” firecrackers for Diwali to try to curb pollution, but it was unclear how the rule would be enforced or whether there was such a thing as an environmentally safe firework.

A change in wind direction may yet divert some crop-burning smoke away from the capital, but forecasters say the outlook is not good. Dropping winter temperatures, higher moisture and lower wind speeds expected in the coming week tend to trap pollutants in the atmosphere, said Mr Roychowdhury, meaning the smog is likely to get considerably worse before it gets better.

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