With the resumption of industrial activity and the return of cars to the streets – along with less wind – the air quality in the city is falling back to unhealthy levels.

The air quality in the Indian capital has dropped to “very poor” and days after the state government introduced stricter measures to combat air pollution, a smoggy haze has settled over the city.

The Air Quality Index (AQI) in New Delhi surged above 270 on Friday, according to SAFAR, India’s largest environmental monitoring agency, after agricultural fires in neighboring states spilled smoke into the city.

On Thursday, the AQI had exceeded 300, indicating “very bad” conditions where there is a risk of breathing problems.

The World Health Organization considers anything over 25 to be unsafe.

According to the Reuters news agency, the average AQI in New Delhi since October 1 has been more than 36 percent above the figures for the same period last year.

Rickshaw drivers in New Delhi as a thick layer of smog covers the city [File: Nasir Kachroo/Al Jazeera]The Indian capital, one of the world’s most polluted cities, had a break from air pollution through September, partly due to a coronavirus lockdown.

But with the resumption of industrial activity and the return of automobiles to the streets – along with the onset of cooler weather and less wind – air quality in the city has once again dropped to unhealthy levels.

Lower wind speeds leave deadly pollutants such as PM2.5 particles hanging in the air.

PM2.5, particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter, can travel deep into the lungs and cause deadly diseases such as cancer and heart problems.

October is also the time of year when farmers in neighboring regions, including the states of Haryana and Punjab, set their fields on fire after they are harvested for clearing, although it is prohibited to do so.

This smoke is entering New Delhi, causing a surge in pollution in the city of more than 20 million people and exacerbating the pre-existing public health crisis.

New Delhi’s legendary India Gate in the background, covered in thick smog [File: Amarjeet Singh/Al Jazeera]Health experts say that high levels of air pollution over a long period of time have impaired disease resistance for people living in New Delhi, making them more susceptible to the coronavirus.

Over the years the pollution crisis in New Delhi has increased public pressure on the government to address the root causes.

The authorities have often put in place a system that prevents many private vehicles from being on the road for two weeks. It has also ordered firefighters to sprinkle water from high-rise buildings to settle the dust, tried to put out trash fires, and instructed builders to cover construction sites to prevent dust from enveloping the area.

However, the problem persists.

During the peak periods of pollution last year, air pollution in New Delhi rose sometimes even beyond measurable scale. A dark yellow haze covered the city for several days, forcing schools to close and rerouting flights.

The Indian Agricultural Research Institute has developed a microbial liquid solution that softens stubble and turns it into compost, eliminating the need to burn the agricultural crop.

The aqueous solution consists of four capsules, which cost a little less than half a dollar and can be used to quickly break down crop residues.

K Annapurna, a senior scientist at the public institute, said the solution could help with pollution while keeping the essential nutrients in the soil that would otherwise be damaged by burning the residue.


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