Delhi shuts primary schools as smog envelops NCR

Swach Bharat's capital Delhi chocked in smog today forcing authorities to announce closure of all primary schools and impose curbs on vehicles while top medical body declared a ''public health emergency''.

The Delhi administration also banned assemblies and outdoor activities for older students as thick, brown smog descended upon the world's most polluted capital city.

The air quality index, which measures the concentration of poisonous particulate matter in the air, hit the "severe" level of 451 on a scale where the maximum reading is 500 and where anything above 100 is considered unhealthy by the Central Pollution Control Board.

A Supreme Court-appointed panel has recommended emergency measures like four times the parking fees to discourage the use of cars and reduced metro fares.

Announcing that primary schools would be shut, deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia said: "I would also request people to avoid morning walks. The situation is close to a severe crisis."

The Delhi government has put out health advisories for high-risk groups, mainly the children and elderly, saying they should avoid outdoor activities.

Earlier, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, likened Delhi to a "gas chamber", and tweeted his suggestion that schools should be closed for a few days. "Every year, during this time of the year, Delhi becomes a gas chamber for almost a month," Kejriwal said.

The irony is that this happens at a time when India is pushing hard for a cleaner environment at the global talks on climate change.

Kejriwal said he sought an appointment with union environment minister Harsh Vardhan, but he is in Germany for a climate change summit.

Delhi's residents woke up to a thick brown haze in the morning, with eyes smarting and an irritation in the nose and throat.

The air quality in parts of Delhi "is equal to smoking 50 cigarettes a day," Arvind Kumar, chairman for chest surgery at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, told Reuters.

The Indian Medical Association called for cancelling the annual half marathon on 19 November to protect runners and volunteers from high levels of deadly particulate matter.

The US embassy's website said that levels of the fine pollutants known as PM2.5 that are most harmful to health reached 703 - well over double the threshold of 300 that is classed as hazardous. It stood at 999 for the RK Puram area, beyond which no readings are available.

Vehicle emissions and dust from construction sites were the factors blamed for that spike, besides firecrackers and farm burnings in north India. The Delhi government blamed the centre for not stepping in to stop farm burnings in neighbouring Punjab and Haryana.