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Air pollution in northern India is causing partial lockdowns in New Delhi

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India's capital is under a partial lockdown amid a health emergency but not for COVID-19. NPR's Lauren Frayer has more.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Delhiites continuing to breathe poisonous, toxic air.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: It happens across northern India every winter. People set fires to stay warm. Farmers burn crop stubble left over from the harvest. The smoke combines with industrial and vehicular emissions, and it all gets trapped in a layer of smog held down by cold temperatures. The Taj Mahal disappears into toxic haze for months. The wealthy hunker down behind air filters. And the poor die disproportionately of lung disease. New Delhi's chief minister Arvind Kejriwal held a news conference last weekend.

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ARVIND KEJRIWAL: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: Announcing the closure of schools all week. Some had only just reopened after 20 months because of COVID-19. He also paused construction projects and ordered government employees to work from home. Data scientist Vasu Jain's boss called him last week and told him to repurpose his COVID masks for pollution.

VASU JAIN: And in case we do not have N95 masks, we can get one from office. And also recommended us to get an air purifier for home.

FRAYER: Then his boss called again this week and told him, just work from home. The pollution has been more than four times what's safe. It's too dangerous to commute even a short distance, he said.

JAIN: Really bad. Like, in Delhi, you can't, you know, travel without rolling up your windows. You'll get a headache or, you know, you'll get nauseous within not a very long time.

FRAYER: Only some private companies are allowing employees to work from home. But Jyoti Pande Lavakare says it's a start. She's a clean air advocate who hopes the pandemic has primed people to mobilize against other health threats, too, especially pollution.

JYOTI PANDE LAVAKARE: You have to treat this as a national health emergency. And you have to shut down things when it gets so bad.

FRAYER: Treat this like a COVID lockdown, she says. But shutting down public transit, for example, or requiring all companies to shut their offices - that would require politicians from several states in the national capital region to agree on restrictions. And they may be hesitant to do so because India's economy is only now bouncing back from COVID closures. So while the country's supreme court yesterday urged authorities to clear roads of nonessential traffic...

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PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: ...Prime Minister Narendra Modi was inaugurating a new highway today east of the capital. Economic development remains his priority. That's one reason why India has committed to going net-zero on emissions much later than other major economies. Lavakare, the clean air advocate, says India needs to fight pollution as if it were a war.

PANDE LAVAKARE: When you have an external aggressor, you have the leader of a country setting up a war room. You have, you know, all the best minds of the country coming together to figure out strategies.

FRAYER: Except in India today, people are getting used to this pollution. Politicians may not feel the need to act because this happens every year.

PANDE LAVAKARE: It's there, and it's killing you. But it's like the frog in the boiling pot, where the water just gets a little bit warmer each time until he's just boiled to death. So that's what's happening to us as we breathe this air every year.

FRAYER: Lavakare lost her mother to lung cancer a few years ago. She was one of an estimated 1.7 million Indians to die of pollution-related disease every year.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News in Nashik, Maharashtra, India.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMA SONG, "3JANE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.