India celebrates Diwali amid pandemic and pollution fears

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More than a billion Indians have celebrated Diwali amid concern over a resurgence in coronavirus infections and rising air pollution that is enveloping the country’s north in a cloud of thick toxic smog.

Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, is typically celebrated by socialising and exchanging gifts with friends and family, as well as lighting oil lamps or candles to symbolise a victory of light over darkness. Fireworks are also a major part of the celebrations.

But this year, the pandemic is upending some of the festivities in India, particularly in the capital New Delhi, which has seen a renewed spike in coronavirus infections in recent weeks, recording more new cases than any other Indian state.

A temple in India
A man disinfects an area at Akshardham temple on the eve of Diwali in Gandhinagar (AP)

Some even stayed at home and did not visit friends or relatives.

“It’s not the usual Diwali,” said Vishwas Malik, 47, a professor in New Delhi.

“The exchange of gifts is less and we have not interacted with people. We have not visited people’s homes because of the fear of the coronavirus.”

In a bid to encourage people to stay home, New Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, and some of his ministers held a prayer ceremony at a grand temple.

Diwali celebrations
Revellers light fireworks in Prayagraj (AP)

Mr Kejriwal said last week that the pandemic was spreading fast in the capital due to the rising air pollution.

He appealed to people to not burst firecrackers on Diwali, in the hopes of mitigating the harmful effect of toxic air on those who are more vulnerable during the pandemic.

Firecrackers often cause spikes in New Delhi’s notoriously bad pollution.

Statues of hindu deities
Idols of Hindu deities for sale in Kolkata (AP)

India has confirmed 8.7 million cases of the coronavirus, including 129,000 deaths. While it is second in the world for total cases behind the US, daily infections have been on the decline since the middle of September.

Shoppers in New Delhi had been packing markets across the country, prompting concerns among health experts who warned that crowded celebrations could cause a virus resurgence that could batter India’s healthcare system.

But ahead of Diwali, messages encouraging people to stay home during the festival spread around the city via WhatsApp.

“This Diwali is more about survival. It is about being grateful that we are still able to breathe and be alive for this day. Please stay home,” read one such message.

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi continued with his custom of celebrating Diwali with Indian soldiers, flying to a military post in western Rajasthan state where he distributed sweets among troops and took a tank ride.

“You may be on snow-capped mountains or in deserts, but my Diwali is complete only when I celebrate with you,” Mr Modi said in his address to the troops.

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