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Why Delhi Is Becoming the Smog Capital of The World

Smog in New Delhi on Nov. 5, 2019. 

Smog in New Delhi on Nov. 5, 2019. 

Photographer: Ruhani Kaur/Bloomberg

Millions of Indians are breathing in the world’s most toxic air. Each winter, thick smog envelops the capital of New Delhi and numerous cities across the dusty and densely populated North Indian plains. Air pollution in the New Delhi metropolis -- home to 20 million people -- has proved especially stubborn in 2019, and especially potent: One measure of pollution exceeded World Health Organization daily recommended limits by a factor of more than 20. An estimated 1.24 million people died in 2017 from India’s dirty air -- an annual catastrophe that the country’s authorities are struggling to contain.

Vehicle and industrial emissions contribute year-round, as do road and construction dust and domestic fires lit by the poor. But a grim extra wallop comes late in the year from the burning of crop stubble, which continues despite being banned in the surrounding states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. Farmers traditionally clear fields by burning in preparation for the winter season. Compounding the problem: The trough-like topography of north India means polluted air lingers in colder months.