04 Nov

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Public health emergency declared after air pollution levels go off the charts

Hindu women had to immerse themselves into the polluted waters of the Yamuna River.

Hindu women had to immerse themselves into the polluted waters of the Yamuna River. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

It was meant to be a ceremony to bring good health and prosperity. But the thousands of women who gathered in the waters of Delhi’s Yamuna River on the city’s most polluted day in three years, to mark the ancient Hindu festival of Chhath Puja, instead had to immerse themselves in the thick toxic waste, while inhaling air so thick with smog that it went off the pollution charts.

Sunita Devi, 42, was among those who offered prayers as she stood in the toxic foam of the Yamuna, so thick and frothy from industrial and domestic pollution it made the water resemble a putrid bubble bath. The irony that this was a ritual meant to give thanks to the sun god for sustaining life on earth was not lost on her.

“I stood for an hour in the water to offer prayers but it was very oily, dirty and had a bad smell,” said Devi. “According to the ritual we are supposed to bathe in the water but I could not bring myself to do it fully, though my friends took a full dip even with the smell. My legs were itching after a while and I had to go home and take a bath.”

Living in the world’s most polluted city has taken a toll on almost every one of its 20 million citizens, especially since the Hindu festival of Diwali, which prompted a severe deterioration in air quality. As the air pollution levels reached catastrophic levels – almost 10 times above the healthy limit on the weekend – a public health emergency was declared and has remained in place for the past five days. The streets have emptied, schools remained closed and many did not go into work on Monday morning as the air quality index remained stubbornly in the category of “severe”.

Monday also saw the temporary introduction of a scheme, which ran previously in 2016, where cars with odd and even number plates can only drive on alternate days, which authorities say will take 1.2m cars off Delhi’s roads each day. However, most in the city were highly sceptical about the plan, which will only be in place for two weeks.

“They did this scheme twice before and it is pointless,” said Amit, a driver. “I am not supposed to be taking my car out today but I am just taking the back roads and short cuts to avoid the traffic officers. All the other drivers I know are doing the same. Yes pollution is a terrible problem, I have had an awful chest infection for the past two days because of it, but this temporary scheme is not going to change anything. We need real action from the government.”

The sentiment was exemplified by politician Vijay Goel, senior leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), who chose to defy the rules and took his car with an odd number plate out for a drive.

In a city such as Delhi, where poverty and homelessness is rife and millions make their living on the sides of the roads, not all had the option of taking shelter in homes or driving cars equipped with air purifiers.

At his stall selling chickpeas on the roadside of Kamla Nagar, north Delhi, Dinesh Raj said both his health and his business was suffering. “I generally earn around 400 to 500 rupees per day but after the bad pollution I have only sold three plates and it’s already lunchtime,” Raj said, rubbing his eyes which he complained were burning.

“People are not coming out of their houses anymore, only those like me who cannot afford to stay indoors are here. And even though I cover it up, people are afraid to eat my food because they think the bad air is affecting it. If the government doesn’t do something to clean up the air, I am going to have to go back to my village in Bihar.”

The lacklustre and uncoordinated response to the crisis from both the federal government and state governments of Delhi, and neighbouring Punjab and Haryana where the burning of the crop stubble has been a key contributor to Delhi’s thick toxic smog, has been a source of infuriation and anger for the city’s residents. Navdha Malhotra, campaigns director for Purpose, a social impact agency who run a mobilisation campaign called Help Delhi Breathe, spoke of her anger that the state governments were “all passing the buck and blaming each other while we have to live in this disgusting layer of smog.”

As Delhi residents woke on the weekend to smog so brown and thick that it was impossible to see more than a few feet ahead, India’s health minister Harsh Vardhan tweeted that a good solution to offsetting its harmful impact was to eat carrots. Sunil Bharala, minister for the state of Utter Pradesh, meanwhile, defended the practice of crop burning by farmers, declaring it a “natural system”.

While Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has been publicly candid about the problem, calling the current pollution crisis unbearable, he has also been criticised for passing the blame for the problem on to adjacent states.

While firecrackers were banned and construction has been halted in Delhi since the state of emergency was declared on Friday, in reality these rules have barely been enforced. On Monday, the supreme court judges slammed all responsible authorities for failing to tackle pollution in the capital, saying that people had been “left to die”.

“No one is safe even inside homes. It is atrocious,” they added.

“First, as a citizen of Delhi who has lived here all my life, this is absolutely disgraceful,” said supreme court judge Indu Malhotra.

‘It’s suffocating’: Delhi residents react as toxic smog blankets city – video
Pollution in Delhi has reached its worst levels so far this year, at almost 400 times the amount deemed healthy. A week on from Diwali, the thick brown smog that shrouded the city after the festival has shown no sign of shifting. One local said the pollution was so bad it burned his nose and throat, making simple activities such as jogging difficult

“The Delhi government is very progressive in terms of policies on paper but there is zero implementation and no political will on this issue. People are angry and mobilising, particularly parents who now feel like they can’t let their children go outside, but overall civic action here is also pretty disgraceful. I have seen citizens in Delhi bursting firecrackers while wearing masks.”

Malhotra condemned the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) for allowing a match against Bangladesh to go ahead in Delhi when the pollution levels were off the charts. “We should not be normalising these conditions by doing things like hosting a cricket match,” she said. “It is deathly, and when pollution gets that bad, the whole city should be shutting down. Only then will politicians take this seriously.”

An indication of both the increasing obvious severity of the pollution, but also increased public awareness about its harmful impact on health, has been masks, which are now visible on the faces of people all over the streets of Delhi. In a mark of the growing public anger in some quarters, a citizens protest is also planned at Indian Gate on Tuesday evening to decry the lack of action by authorities.

But for many there has been no hiding from the thick poisonous smog. Kushal Malik, a Delhi traffic police officer, had spent the past 12 hours on duty on one of city’s busiest and most polluted roads, with no choice but to inhale the fumes. “I have constant throat irritation, headache and a burning sensation in my eyes,” he said. “The government has provided us with masks but they are not effective for pollution levels this bad. It is not good enough.”

Additional reporting by Kakoli Bhattacharya

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World Politics

United States

Setback for president in his attempts to keep his finances secret as lawyer says ‘we’ll be taking this case to the supreme court’

Donald Trump walks on the South Lawn upon his return to the White House on 3 November.

Donald Trump walks on the South Lawn upon his return to the White House on 3 November. Photograph: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

Donald Trump’s accounting firm must hand over eight years of his tax returns to New York prosecutors, a US appeals court ruled on Monday in the latest setback for Trump in his attempts to keep his finances secret.

The ruling by the New York-based second US circuit court of appeals backed the ability of prosecutors to enforce a subpoena for the returns against accounting firm Mazars.

Jay Sekulow, a lawyer for Trump, said in a statement: “We will be taking this case to the supreme court.”

That will preclude the immediate release of the information.

Manhattan district attorney Cyrus R Vance Jr sought the records in an investigation that includes payments made to buy the silence of two women, adult film actor and director Stormy Daniels and model Karen McDougal, who claim they had affairs with the president before the 2016 election. Trump has denied them.

Vance has agreed not to enforce the subpoena while Trump petitions the supreme court. Under the agreement, Trump now has 10 business days to file that petition.

The highest court has a 5-4 conservative majority including two justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, who were appointed by Trump.

Last month, a lower-court judge ruled that the president’s claim to immunity while in office was “repugnant”.

US district judge Victor Marrero in Manhattan described the immunity argument as “extraordinary” and “an overreach of executive power [that was] repugnant to the nation’s governmental structure and constitutional values”.

He added: “The court cannot square a vision of presidential immunity that would place the president above the law.”

On Monday, Sekulow added: “The issue raised in this case goes to the heart of our Republic. The constitutional issues are significant.”

In the written appeals court decision, the judges said they only decided whether a state prosecutor can demand the president’s personal financial records while he is in office.

The court did not consider whether the president is immune from indictment and prosecution while in office or whether the president may be ordered to produce documents in a state criminal proceeding.

“We hold that any presidential immunity from state criminal process does not bar the enforcement of such a subpoena,” wrote chief judge Robert A Katzmann.

Trump’s lawyers have said the investigation by Vance, a Democrat, is politically motivated. A spokesman for Vance declined to comment.

Since Richard Nixon, presidential candidates have released their tax records by precedent rather than legal compulsion.

Since announcing his run for the White House in 2015, Trump has often said he will release his information after the completion of an audit. An audit does not preclude the release of such information.

As well as attempts to obtain financial information, Trump faces an impeachment inquiry in the Democratic-led House, over his attempts to get Ukraine’s leader to investigate his political rivals.

Judge blocks Trump’s rule requiring immigrants show they have healthcare>>

‘Quid pro quo, yes or no?’ Trump allies face Ukraine question>>

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