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New Delhi is closing schools as it tries to deal with air pollution

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Schoolchildren in India's capital have been cooped up at home for about 20 months, first because of coronavirus lockdowns and now because of air pollution. Authorities in New Delhi have started closing schools when pollution spikes. NPR's Lauren Frayer checked in with one family to see how they're coping.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

BHAVREEN KANDHARI: Hello, Lauren.

ASHEER KANDHARI: Hello.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hello.

Asheer Kandhari is a teenage basketball fiend. She and her twin sister are the stars of their high school team. They want to play in college, but there's an obstacle. They live in New Delhi.

What's it like to practice in pollution? I mean, do you feel it at all?

A KANDHARI: Definitely. Like, eyes start watering, and it's much more harder to breathe. Your endurance is very important, so that's compromised when the pollution is higher.

FRAYER: Delhi has some of the worst air pollution in the world.

B KANDHARI: Air? Actually, right now, she's breathing poison.

FRAYER: Asheer's mother, Bhavreen Kandhari, is a clean air campaigner. She's just back from the U.N. climate summit, where she shocked people with tales of Delhi's air quality index, or AQI.

B KANDHARI: What is the AQI in Glasgow? And it was 20. And then I checked Delhi, you know. And it was 500.

FRAYER: Bhavreen is part of a group called the Warrior Moms. They successfully lobbied Delhi to close schools when pollution spikes. But even when her daughters don't have to commute in the smog, she still won't let them shoot hoops outside - much to their annoyance.

A KANDHARI: Annoyed would be very mild - it was - we've had quite a few fights over it and screaming and crying.

FRAYER: Bhavreen hates to deny them something they love, and even that feels inadequate.

B KANDHARI: As much as a mother who's giving them the best food, trying to invest in organic and all that - but I cannot buy my children new lungs. It's so sad, you know?

FRAYER: Pollution kills an estimated 1.7 million Indians every year. In Delhi, it's worse now when farmers burn crop stubble after the harvest, and cold temperatures trap industrial and vehicular emissions over the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARS PASSING)

FRAYER: I'm just off of one of Delhi's busiest traffic circles. There are one, two, three, four - eight lanes of traffic. Next to me, there's a woman making tea on a charcoal fire. And there's a construction site across the street. And towering over all of these pollutants is something that the Delhi government has installed to try to clean the air.

KARTHIK GANESAN: There's some aesthetics to it. It looks like a pagoda - right? - from the distance.

FRAYER: Karthik Ganesan is an energy policy researcher who agreed to meet me at Delhi's smog tower. It's an eight-story structure with 40 giant fans at its base, and it filters 1,000 cubic meters of air per second. It was actually off when we arrived. With a hand-held meter, we measured the fine particulate matter in the air and got a reading of hazardous - the highest category. Then the engineers saw us and turned it on.

GANESAN: Let's see. Let's see. Thank you. They turned it on, right?

FRAYER: So what was it - 215 before they turned it on?

GANESAN: Exactly.

FRAYER: It's going down.

GANESAN: Of course it is. It's going to go down.

FRAYER: So now we're in the very unhealthy category, which is actually an improvement.

GANESAN: (Laughter).

FRAYER: The air quality did improve right next to the smog tower. But when we took a few steps away...

GANESAN: Within, like, 10, 12 feet, the impact starts withering away.

FRAYER: So you have to sit right next to that thing and, like...

GANESAN: How many people are standing right next to this? In fact, it's fenced off.

FRAYER: Delhi would need thousands of these towers to benefit everyone. It's got just two, and they cost more than $2 million each.

GANESAN: Everybody is desperate, right? Will something work? And we're just throwing money at any contraption.

FRAYER: Instead of trying to clean the air, Ganesan says authorities need to stop the pollution, switch to renewables, build more public transit. Delhi did ban nonessential trucks and shut half of its coal-fired power plants for two weeks last month. But that hurts industry, and India is a developing country. Economic growth really matters here.

B KANDHARI: Hi, I'm so sorry.

FRAYER: Bhavreen Kandhari, the mother of twins, finds this focus on economic growth a bitter pill to swallow. Her kids have had seasonal coughs since they were 9 months old. She became a clean air activist, stopped them from playing basketball outdoors. And yet...

B KANDHARI: No matter what I did, I have damaged my children's lungs. They are never going to be the same. They are going to suffer.

FRAYER: Because they were born in this city, she says, they will pay a price.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.