Pollution level in Delhi peaked to a three-year high on Sunday notwithstanding claims of heightened checks and curbs by authorities, while the Centre reviewed the situation with the governments of Delhi, Haryana and Punjab and announced that Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba would monitor it on a daily basis.
After Delhi, all schools up to Class 12 were also closed in the National Capital Region till Tuesday following spike in pollution level. The heavy smog caused a major disruption at Delhi airport as 37 flights were diverted and more than 250 departures and 300 arrivals delayed due to poor visibility, officials said.
According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the national capital's 24-hour average air quality index (AQI) stood at 494 at 4 pm on Sunday, the highest since November 6, 2016 when it was 497.
Twenty-one of the 37 air quality monitoring stations recorded AQI between 490 and 500 and air quality sensors at Aya Nagar, Ashok Vihar, Anand Vihar and Aurobindo Marg peaked out at 7 pm.
The odd-even scheme road space rationing scheme will kick in from 8 am on Monday, with only even-numbered non-transport vehicles allowed on Delhi roads on the first day of the exercise.
In the National Capital Region (NCR), Faridabad with AQI 493, Noida (494), Ghaziabad (499) and Greater Noida (488), Gurugram (479), also breathed extremely polluted air.
The Ministry of Earth Sciences' air quality monitor, SAFAR, said the city's overall AQI reached as high as 708 around 5 pm, which is 14 times the safe level of 0-50.
An AQI between 0-50 is considered 'good', 51-100 'satisfactory', 101-200 'moderate', 201-300 'poor', 301-400 'very poor' and 401-500 'severe'. An AQI above 500 falls in the 'severe plus' category.
The apocalyptic haze stiffened its choke on Delhi and satellite towns as scattered rains on Saturday increased humidity, leading to smog. A cloud cover added to the woes.
NASA satellite imagery showed vast swathes of the northern plains, covering Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and parts of Jharkhand and West Bengal, blanketed under a smoky haze.
"Wind speed increased significantly on Sunday. But the smog, due to high humidity after scattered rains, and a cloud cover didn't let sun rays reach the ground. As a result, the air near the ground remained cold and heavy," Mahesh Palawat, a senior scientist at Skymet Weather, a private forecaster, explained.
Weather experts said any significant improvement in the situation is highly unlikely unless there is rainfall, which may occur on November 7 and 8 under the influence of Cyclone Maha and a western disturbance.
The spurt in pollution levels prompted the administrations in Ghaziabad, Noida, Greater Noida, Gurgaon and Faridabad to shut all government and private schools till November 5.
The Delhi government had on Friday directed closure of schools till November 5 and banned construction activities after the Supreme Court-mandated Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority declared a public health emergency as air quality plummeted.
On Twitter, hashtags 'DelhiBacho' and 'DelhiAirEmergency' trended for a major part of the day as hundreds of people said they wanted to leave the NCR till the situation ameliorates.
Many also criticised the Board of Control for Cricket in India's (BCCI) decision to go ahead with the first India-Bangladesh T20 match at the Firoz Shah Kotla Grounds on Sunday evening, disregarding concerns about the health of players and thousands of spectators.
"Delhi ppl should leave at least for 1-2 weeks.. It is painful to live," a Delhi resident tweeted. "I think it's time to leave Delhi. Went out for groceries and came back with eyes burning," another said.
According to a survey released on Sunday, over 40 per cent residents of Delhi and NCR want to move to another city because of bad air quality while 16 per cent want to travel during the period. The survey involved 17,000 respondents from Delhi and NCR.
A group of environmentalists wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting him to save "the children, the elderly and our most-vulnerable who suffer the worst effects of pollution".
Meanwhile, PK Mishra, the principal secretary to the prime minister, reviewed the situation arising out of severe air pollution in the National Capital Region, and other parts of north India with senior officials from the states of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi, who joined through video-conferencing, according to a statement.
Union Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba will monitor the alarming pollution situation in Delhi and neighbouring states on a daily basis, it was decided at a high-level meeting held a day after the chief ministers of Delhi, Haryana and Punjab sought the Centre's intervention.
Mishra reviewed the situation arising out of burning of stubble and wastes, construction activities, and industrial and vehicular pollution in the National Capital Region and other parts of north India, the statement said.
The Delhi government issued a health advisory in view of the severe air pollution in the city and asked people to avoid outdoor activities as much as possible, especially during the morning and late evening hours.
Delhi Congress president Subhash Chopra and several other leaders of the party were detained by the police during a protest at Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal's residence against the high levels of air pollution in the city.
Kejriwal said the issue of pollution should not be "politicised" and called on all neighbouring states and the Centre to "sit together" and deliberate on how to prevent stubble burning as the air quality in the national capital dipped to alarming levels.
The Delhi chief minister said his government was not indulging in "blame game" but looking for solutions to pollution caused by stubble burning.
"This matter should not be politicised. People of Delhi did everything they could to reduce pollution in the city but concrete steps have to be taken against stubble burning," he said in a video message.
However, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said his government has acted against nearly 3,000 farmers for burning stubble and accused Kejriwal of doing little beyond "playing" politics to address the problem.
"Instead of addressing the problem, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is playing political games," said Singh, asking what the AAP leader has done on the ground to resolve the issue.
The Uttar Pradesh government has warned against burning of garbage, polythene and stubble in the field.
"Stubble burning in fields results in massive air pollution. Therefore, farmers should be encouraged and made aware of the consequences of burning straw in their fields. Officials should ensure straw is mixed in the soil to make compost," Chief Secretary Rajendra Kumar Tiwari said in a directive to officers concerned.
Apart from this, arrangements should be made to ensure sprinkling of water at construction sites, he said.
Officials said fines were being imposed on farmers who were found burning stubble.