Millions of Indians ignored bans on setting off firecrackers to celebrate Deepavali, the Hindu festival of lights, meaning that hundreds of millions across north India woke up on Sunday to toxic air blanketing their homes and towns.
The capital New Delhi was covered in a thick haze, with the average pollution level over nine times that considered safe by the World Health Organization, reports Reuters.
Also sitting under choking haze were cities in the states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Bihar, all of which typically suffer appallingly unhealthy air quality at this time of year.
Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had banned the sale and use of firecrackers ahead of the festival but the policy proved impossible to implement and city skies blazed throughout the night.
Angry residents complained on social media of breathing difficulties and stinging eyes.
“Our gods must be so happy today, that their followers burst firecrackers and choked the young ones to despair and death,” said Vimlendu Jha, of environmental group Swechha.
Some defended firecrackers as an essential part of the celebration.
“Are you realizing how all of India stood up in defiance against the cracker ban? It’s like a form of Hindu freedom battle cry,” Tarun Vijay, a leader of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, tweeted.
Northern India’s air pollution usually worsens in October and November due to windless days and farmers burning agricultural waste.
India’s raging coronavirus epidemic, with more than 400,000 cases in New Delhi alone, has also heightened alarm over the smog. Doctors are warning of a sharp increase in respiratory illnesses in the weeks to come.
It is a far cry from the months during lockdown when the air was so clear that the Taj Mahal became visible from kilometres away. However, as soon as the lockdown ended, the poisonous smog tentacles came drifting back almost immediately as air quality returned to normal and the Taj Mahal disappeared once more.