An ambitious plan to use helicopters to fight Delhi's air pollution has been grounded because the aircraft cannot operate in the thick smog, underscoring growing frustration at authorities' inability to address the toxic haze engulfing the city.
Accusations that Narendra Modi's government is failing to take the crisis seriously were further fuelled on Tuesday when the environment minister, Harsh Vardhan, urged residents to remain calm, saying only "routine precautions" were needed, even though air quality levels remain "severe".
The city authorities had engaged a state-owned helicopter company to spray water over Delhi in the hope of settling the thick haze of pollutants. But on Monday administrators were told they would be unable to help dissipate the smog until the smog itself had cleared.
"Right now, with the prevailing smog, it is not possible for the helicopters to carry out operations," the chairman and managing director of the company, BP Sharma, told the Indian Express. "We have communicated the same to the Delhi government. There was a meeting regarding this on Monday."
The other hitch is that many parts of Delhi – particularly its southern quarters where parliament, the presidency and the prime minister are all based – are within a strictly policed no-fly zone.
A spokesman for the city government could not be reached but told the Indian Express: "There are a few issues and these will be worked out … All stakeholders are being consulted."
A 2015 study found that 52% of the particulate matter in the city's air was from dust kicked up by the tens of thousands of cars on its roads. Uncovered sand and soil from construction sites also contribute to the choking atmosphere.
In the last week, massive crop burning in neighbouring states and slow winds have also been a factor in sending air pollution levels in parts of north India to more than 30 times the World Health Organisation standards for daily exposure.
Doctors have declared a public health emergency in Delhi, but Vardhan was blasé, contrasting the pollution to the 1984 gas leak in Bhopal that killed at least 25,000 people.
Bhopal, he argued was "an emergency situation where you have to panic and you have to see what you have to do", he said in an interview with CNN-18 news.
"I'm not saying we shouldn't do anything about it [the Delhi smog], everyone has to respond to what he is supposed to do. But there is no need to spread panic among the people."
Public pressure has centred on the city's chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, a populist former bureaucrat and engineer. His proposal to ration traffic according to the last digit of number plates – odd numbers one day, evens the other – has been blocked by judges since Friday.
Kejriwal wants to maintain a long list of exemptions to the odd-even rule, including single women, cars transporting children and two-wheelers. Even if implemented, studies of the last time Delhi attempted the measure have found its impact was "abysmally small".