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Indian capital bans half of city’s cars from streets to stem ‘gas chamber’ air pollution emergency

Critics ask why action is only being taken a week after air pollution spiked post-Diwali

Adam Withnall
Monday 04 November 2019 15:18 GMT
Delhi bans half of all cars from roads to combat toxic smog

Traffic was unusually sparse in India’s capital, Delhi, on Monday as authorities effectively banned half of all private cars from the roads, a response to the toxic smog that has gripped the city for more than a week.

Delhi’s chief minister says the measure, known as the “odd-even” rule because it allows cars to be used every other day depending on the final digit of the licence plate number, would take as many as 1.5 million vehicles off the streets, This restriction runs until 15 November.

The benefits of such a scheme have long been debated, after similar drives in 2016 and 2017 appeared to make little dent in the overall rates of air pollution.

But the measure has been nonetheless widely accepted by the public, after horrendous conditions on Sunday saw visibility plummet and air quality indexes registered the worst figures for the winter season so far.

Commuters heading to work on Monday morning have reported busier-than-usual conditions on Delhi’s Metro underground rail network, despite an additional 61 trains scheduled to cope with the expected increase in passengers.

Office workers in busy commercial hubs like Connaught Place have also described the struggle to get a taxi, with Uber and Ola both committing not to impose surge pricing during the “odd-even” window.

There are some exceptions to the new rule – taxis and three-wheeler rickshaws are not included, and women driving private cars on their own are exempt, as are those with physical disabilities and so-called “VIPs” – but compliance is high, with only even-numbered cars out on major roads surveyed by The Independent.

Pressure on the transport network is eased by the fact that schools are shut due to the pollution emergency on Monday, and will reopen on Tuesday unless the order is extended.

Nonetheless, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal declared the drive a success, reporting that “nearly 100 per cent compliance is being noted”. Authorities have been raising awareness of the scheme for a number of weeks, and doubled the fine for non-compliance to 4,000 rupees (£43).

Mr Kejriwal wrote on Twitter that he car-pooled to work with two cabinet colleagues. “Share cars. This will build friendship, strengthen relationships as well as save petrol and reduce pollution,” he wrote. Another minister rode to work on a bicycle, according to NDTV.

Dubbed the “gas chamber” by Mr Kejriwal, Delhi’s toxic winter smog has become an annual fixture, caused by a mixture of factors including the burning of agricultural waste in neighbouring states, emissions from industrial processes and dust from construction projects.

Millions of fireworks lit for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, contribute an additional spike – and cold temperatures and static weather conditions keep the smog in place for days on end.

Both scientists and environmental activists are calling for central and state authorities to do more to prevent the long-anticipated smog setting in, and are critical of the fact that the “odd-even” scheme is only starting now.

City officials also started handing out the planned five million free anti-pollution masks to school children late last week – several days after the crisis began with the Diwali festivities, when most officials were on holiday.

“Because of public mobilisation and people getting angry, action has been taken,” says Reecha Upadhyay of the Clean Air Fund, an international philanthropic initiative to tackle air pollution.

“But knowing and anticipating that the pollution is going to spike around this time, there could have been more attempts to coordinate action – even a few weeks ago – rather than trying to do this when we are already in the middle of the problem,” she told The Independent.

The Delhi government largely blames the smog on the crop burning in neighbouring states, and its message seems to be getting through – with Delhiites referring to the toxic air as “our gift from the farmers”.

One city resident, Ajay Jasra, said: “I don’t think this odd-even scheme will do anything. It’s mostly the stubble burning in the states of Punjab and Haryana which contributes to the pollution, and industrial pollution is also high.”

Over the weekend, the chief minister of Punjab wrote to the prime minister Narendra Modi urging him to intervene in the crisis and criticising the “blame game” played by the various devolved governments of the region in order to avoid responsibility for action.

“The harsh truth is that while all of us are busy conveniently passing the buck to one another, Delhi’s people are reeling from excruciating misery, and are facing one of the worst health disasters in the nation’s, possibly the world’s, history,” wrote Amarinder Singh.

The air pollution crisis in the capital is certainly bad for India’s image internationally, with the smog literally overshadowing a T20 series opener between India and Bangladesh in Delhi on Sunday.

And oft-cited WHO figures show India is home to 15 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, despite the accolades won by Mr Modi for his perceived successes on environmental matters.

With all eyes turning to the prime minister, Mr Modi’s office is yet to take a strong stand on the pollution issue, even after a Supreme Court-mandated panel declared a public health emergency in the capital last week.

The prime minister’s office called an urgent review meeting on the smog on Sunday, after which it was concluded that the cabinet secretary, Rajiv Gauba, would “monitor” the situation.

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