Delhi air quality deteriorated sharply after Diwali on November 4New Delhi: All schools and colleges in Delhi and nearby cities should be closed till further notice, the Commission for Air Quality Management said late Tuesday night. The direction – one of many – comes as the national capital region as it battles a toxic smog that has blanketed the city since Diwali.Educational institutions will, therefore, likely return to online classes as held during the Covid lockdown.A nine-page order issued by the CAQM also advised NCR state governments (Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) to allow at least 50 per cent of staff to work from home till November 21.Private firms in Delhi NCR must also be “encouraged” to allow at least 50 per cent of their staff to work from home, the order by the CAQM (a subcommittee of the Central Pollution Control Board) said.Apart from WFH instructions and the closure of presential classes for schools and colleges, the order also calls for “heavy penalty on persons/organisations responsible for stacking construction materials… or waste on roads in NCR” and “augment availability of road-sweeping machines in NCR”.Construction activities and demolition projects across Delhi NCR have been stopped till November 21 as well, with exceptions made for railway services/stations, Metro operations, airports and bus terminals, as well as national security or defence-related activities and projects.Importantly, only five of 11 thermal power plants in Delhi NCR will be operative.NCR states and Delhi have also been directed to stop the entry of trucks to the national capital, except for those carrying essential commodities. This is also till November 21 and is subject to further review.Petrol and diesel vehicles older than 15 and 10 years, respectively, will not be allowed on the roads. Drivers of vehicles found without a valid emission control certificate will be hauled up, the order said.The CAQM order comes as the Delhi government and the centre face uncomfortable questions from the Supreme Court over the lack of emergency planning for, and response to, the air quality crisis.Yesterday the Delhi government suggested a weekend lockdown and WFH for a week at an emergency meet ordered by the top court; the meeting was also attended by officials from the centre.The Delhi government also recommended a pause for construction and industrial activities in the city.”We have proposed a weekend lockdown, we are ready for it. Our strategy will depend on the court’s directions now,” Delhi Environment Minister Gopal Rai told NDTV.The meeting between Delhi government and central officials was demanded by the Supreme Court, which reacted strongly to the former’s claim that a significant reason for the air pollution in the city was stubble burning by farmers in neighbouring states.The court said there was “no basis for a hue and cry about farm fires” after it was told by the centre that stubble burning contributed to only four per cent of air pollution. But the Delhi government countered by pointing out that peak figures in October and November were not counted.Earlier the court slammed the governments over the air crisis issue; Chief Justice NV Ramana said: “You see how bad the situation is…. even in our houses, we are wearing masks.”Breathing the Delhi air is “like smoking 20 cigarettes a day,” the state government admitted in the court, stressing, “We agree to the gravity of the situation.”Last week the CAQM also called for a halt on the use of diesel generators (except for emergencies), a three- to four-fold increase in parking fees, and a ban on burning coal at open-air eateries.Delhi and surrounding areas, including Gurgaon, Noida and Ghaziabad, have been choking under a deadly blanket of polluted air for over seven days now – beginning with Diwali on November 4.Before, during and after Diwali thousands in these and other areas burst firecrackers in blatant violation of orders by the Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh governments, contributing greatly to the shocking deterioration of air quality levels.According to the Central Pollution Control Board, at 12.27 am the overall AQI in Delhi was 397, which borders on the ‘severe’ category; readings in excess of 400 are considered ‘severe’ or ‘hazardous’.At these levels, the polluted air has high concentrations of PM2.5 particles and these can cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases such as lung cancer.