Delhi embraces car restrictions on key working day

Traffic jam, Delhi, 4 Jan Image copyright EPA
Image caption Implementation of the scheme did not spare drivers some of Delhi's notorious jams...

New restrictions on private cars, which are being enforced to tackle hazardous pollution levels in Delhi, faced their first serious test on Monday as residents headed back to work following the New Year weekend.

The scheme was launched on Friday and authorities in the Indian capital said that most drivers had complied with the rules, which require private cars with even- and odd-number plates to take to the roads on alternate days until 15 January.

There were fears many would flout the rules on the scheme's first full working day.

But the city's usually clogged roads saw less traffic than normal, police said, suggesting motorists with odd-number plates had sought alternative ways of getting around.

"There were doubts about what would happen when all the offices opened," said Delhi Transport Minister Gopal Rai. "We are glad that people are following the rules."

One way of getting people on board was through a full-page advertisement in Monday's newspapers which compared the lungs of a 52-year-old Delhi citizen with those of a resident of a similar age from Himachal Pradesh, a mountainous state in northern India.


Bad air

The car limiting plan is in place between 08:00 and 20:00 daily except on Sundays and the city government has put an additional 3,000 buses into service to handle an increased load.

Image copyright AP
Image caption ... and it may take a while to have any effect on pollution

The city's Metro has also had to deal with a rise in passengers but on Monday, Mangu Singh, the managing director of Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, said the network was operating smoothly.

Taxi operators, which like motorcycles and women drivers, are exempt from the scheme, appeared to witness increased business.

"It's encouraging that people have worked with the government on this. This is most important because it affects our health and our children," said retired engineer RC Taneja, who owns both an odd- and even-plated car but chose to take the Metro for an appointment on Monday morning.

Some residents have even called for the scheme to be made permanent.

Those caught violating the rules face a fine of 2,000 rupees ($30), although many were let off with a verbal warning on Friday and Saturday.

The Press Trust of India said 1,231 people had been fined on Monday.

But what impact has it had on the city's air quality, which the World Health Organization (WHO) says is the world's dirtiest and a Delhi-based environmental group says is responsible for up to 30,000 deaths each year?

A visible layer of smog hovered over the city on Monday and overall pollution levels continued to be deemed "hazardous" on the US embassy's air quality index. It advised the elderly and children to stay indoors and for everyone to avoid physical activity outdoors.

Meanwhile, PM 2.5, the small particles in the air considered dangerous for lungs and the heart, stood at 403.6 micrograms per cubic metre in the Indian capital as of 14:00 - while the safe limit defined by the WHO in 25.

What are PM 2.5 particles?

  • Particulate matter, or PM, 2.5 is a type of pollution involving fine particles less than 2.5 microns (0.0025mm) in diameter
  • A second type, PM 10, is of coarser particles with a diameter of up to 10 microns
  • Some occur naturally - e.g. from dust storms and forest fires, others from human industrial processes
  • They often consist of fragments that are small enough to reach the lungs or, in the smallest cases, to cross into the bloodstream as well
  • A build-up of PM2.5 in the lungs has been associated with causing respiratory illnesses and lung damage

As well as vehicles, experts say the burning of crops and dust from construction also heavily affect Delhi's toxic air.

In an editorial on Monday, the Business Standard newspaper applauded the Delhi government, led by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who carpooled to work on Monday with colleagues, for "making a sincere effort in curbing vehicular pollution".

But it added that more needed to be done, including encouraging people to buy and use battery-operated motorcycles given that "over a third of Delhi's pollution is caused by emissions from two-wheelers".

It also called for expanding public transport networks and upgrading them so "that people can use them with comfort in preference to their private vehicles".

Some residents agreed.

Abheyraj Singh, 25, a smart-phone app designer, said buses "move super slow, making travelling a pain" and that "my nearest Metro station is 3-4km away, making it really hard for me to use". He added: "I really want to use public transport and I feel everyone should, but only if it were more connected."

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