Delhi air pollution
A view of west Delhi shows the dangerous levels of pollution in the capital of India.Creative Commons/Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier

With Delhi's air quality deteriorating to dangerous, toxic levels, scientists have warned of severe health problems for children being forced to attend school.

Fearing embarrassment, though the government said there were no plans to close schools despite the alarming pollution levels, one senior government official, on the condition of anonymity, did reluctantly admit that they may have to take the unfortunate but necessary step.

"If pollution levels deteriorate then the government will shut schools for a few days. The health of students is of prime importance but at present, there is no such plan," the official was quoted saying by India.com

Earlier on October 25, Aam Admi Party spokesperson Nagendar Sharma, while speaking to International Business Times, India, had downplayed the threat and outrightly dismissed the gravity of the situation. Nearly a week before Diwali, pollution levels had already touched the WHO red zone. The same level had prompted emergency measures in China to issue a red alert and take drastic measures such as clamping down on construction work and introducing traffic restrictions.

Undermining the impending hazardous air pollution levels, Sharma said that this is a recurring problem for Delhi and dismissed the steps adopted by China, calling them unviable and impractical in a city like Delhi.

When asked why the AAP government, who is known for taking up bold initiatives for public welfare such as introducing the odd-even scheme, cannot ban crackers, Sharma dismissed this as a practical solution, saying that "it is inconceivable to curb people's religious freedoms". Instead, he suggested that AAP has improved the situation by clamping down on imported toxic Chinese crackers. The situation, despite Sharma's comments, is a lot worse now.

With the post-Diwali dense toxic smog enveloping the air, attendance of panic stricken students is already dwindling with some schools admitting to a 10-15% dip that is expected to rise.

"Mostly students who already have breathing problems do not come to school on days with heavy smog," Ruma Pathak, the principal of MM Public School, confirmed this development.

Though schools in Delhi-NCR are aware of the problem, some feel helpless as under the Right to Education (RTE) Act, they have to have at least 220 working days per year.

Schools may not be at liberty to grant holidays but can take a leaf out the book of The Shri Ram School (TSRS), which proactively issued a circular to the parents of the children attending school on November 2.

In a letter written by Manika Sharma, the director of TSRS, these are the steps that the school said they would undertake to deal with the health crisis after describing the severity of the situation:

1. I urge as many parents to make use of the transport service offered by the school.

2. I urge all parents to seriously consider car-pooling, also promoted by the school. Pollution levels are alarmingly high in the morning and cars are known to be a source of carbon and nitrate contributing to compounds making up PM 2.5

3. In the scenario that exist around us, we must take precautions to protect our children. We have all seen the use of anti-mosquito patches to protect our children from Dengue. In the same breath, I would advocate students to use masks in and out of school to protect themselves from the pollutants present in the air. Teachers will be speaking to the students regarding this. Air Filtering Masks such as Vog Masks are available at Nirvana being outlets (Khan Market, Epicurea, Nehru Place) and Modern Bazaar outlets( Vasant Vihar, Punjabi Bagh, and DLF Phase 1) and at www.nirvanabeing.com. N95 masks can be procured from the local pharmacies and online at Amazon etc.

4. The School will be restricting strenuous/aerobic outdoor activity on days where the quality of air reaches severe/hazardous levels (on the basis of objective data available).

5. I am aware of the Annual Sports Day scheduled at the Moulsari and Aravali campuses in the coming months, the Principals will be sharing further information in the same regard with you. I would request all to cooperate with the schools for change in timings and the duration of sports day.

6. It is imperative that you inform the school of any change in the medical condition of the child.

The statement ended on a stoic yet optimistic note:

Many years back, as The Shri Ram School spoke and breathed environment consciousness, there used to be information available that hinted of a time where our future generation will not have access to good air to breathe and water to drink. A possibility then is a sad, grave reality now, I urge all parents to support the efforts of the school to make the environment a livable one for our children and generations to come. The Shri Ram School is known to be proactive on any concern facing our students however unless unified in thought and action and without active collaboration on this concern, I do not see the situation improving for the next generation.

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