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Maskless Merkel braves severe Delhi smog

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India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) walks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a welcoming ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan – The Presidential Palace in New Delhi on November 1, 2019. (Photo by Prakash SINGH / AFP)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel got a toxic welcome to India on Friday as Prime Minister Narendra Modi treated her to a military parade in New Delhi’s severely polluted air.

Ignoring medical advice to the choking megacity’s 20 million inhabitants, Merkel and Modi reviewed a guard of honour at the presidential palace without pollution masks.

As on similar ceremonies following a series of shaking spells earlier this year, Merkel, 65, sat for the national anthems. The European Union’s longest-serving leader is due to step down in 2021.

Merkel, on her fourth visit to India, thanked Modi for the “very warm and gracious welcome” and said German-Indian ties were “broad-based and deep”, the Press Trust of India reported.

The Indian government monitoring agency said air in the Indian capital, a noxious cocktail of industrial and vehicle emissions and agricultural smoke from the surrounding regions, was rated as “severe” on Friday.

Especially hazardous levels of particulates smaller than 2.5 microns, so tiny they can enter the bloodstream, were 19 times the World Health Organization’s safe maximum, data from the US embassy website showed.

A Central Pollution Control Board official said that pollution entered the “severe-plus” or “emergency” category late Thursday night, the first time since January.

India is home to 14 of the 15 most polluted cities in the world, according to the United Nations. According to one study, smog kills a million Indians prematurely every year.

Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, said Friday that authorities would begin distributing five million pollution masks to schoolchildren.

He blamed neighbouring states, where thousands of farmers at this time of year burn crop stubble, sending vast clouds of smoke drifting across northern India.

On Thursday India’s top pollution watchdog extended a night-time ban on construction in the city until Saturday and recommended a temporary shutdown of power plants in towns around Delhi.

Cricket doubts
The high levels of pollution, which were forecast to blanket Delhi in the coming days, threw into doubt a cricket match between India and Bangladesh scheduled for Sunday.

Bangladesh’s coach Russell Domingo and spin bowling coach Daniel Vettori wore masks in training on Friday morning.

In December 2017 two visiting players from Sri Lanka vomited on the pitch because of the smog and play in the Test match was briefly suspended.

Sourav Ganguly, the new head of India’s cricket board the BCCI, said on Thursday that scheduling of matches in northern India during winter needs to be “little bit more practical”.

But, he said, nothing could be done for this weekend.

“It’s too late to do anything (for Sunday’s match)… So it’s not possible to cancel things at the last minute,” Ganguly told Indian media.

“I spoke to the groundsman. He says once the sun comes out, it will be fine.”


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