Toxic air forces Delhi to sideline millions of cars

Delhi air pollution is the worst on earth
Delhi air pollution is the worst on earth

Millions of smog-choked New Delhi residents will soon be forced into an unusual New Year's resolution: Take more public transit.

Dramatic new driving restrictions are slated to take effect in Delhi on Friday. One of the world's most polluted cities is urgently testing ways to pull millions of cars off the streets and improve the air quality.

The temporary measures will allow private vehicles to operate only on alternate days between January 1 and January 15.

"Those who have to leave their cars behind at home, we know, you will face some difficulties," said Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. "But this is for all of you, and your children. We are all coughing."

In 2014, the World Health Organization released data on air quality levels in 1,600 cities around the world, and Delhi was found to have the highest concentration of particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers, also called PM2.5.

India's capital city, which is home to more than 20 million people, averaged PM2.5 readings of 153, compared to 14 in New York and 20 in Los Angeles. Beijing, which receives the bulk of bad-smog headlines, clocked in at 53.

PM2.5 particles are exceedingly small, but go deep into the lungs and cause chronic health problems. Scientists say coal-fired power plants, vehicles, construction dust, crop burning and cooking fuel use all contribute to high pollution levels in Delhi.

delhi air pollution - copter
Air pollution envelopes the suburbs of New Delhi.

Among these, the sharp rise in the use of private cars stands out. There are nearly 9 million registered vehicles in Delhi, and an incredible 1,400 cars are being added to the streets each day. Bus ridership, meanwhile, is rapidly declining.

The problem is attracting attention from top policymakers.

This winter, the amount of PM2.5 in the air has regularly reached highly dangerous levels, leading Delhi's High Court to compare conditions in the city to "living in a gas chamber."

The Supreme Court of India, which has been the most aggressive government bodies on pollution issues, has banned large diesel SUVs in Delhi and hiked taxes on commercial trucks entering the city.

"It is now time to take drastic action," said Dr. Naresh Trehan, the chairman of Medanta Medicity, a 1,500-bed hospital. "Yes, it's going to cause inconvenience, but people should learn that this is to save themselves."

The prospect of being forced to arrange alternate transportation has roiled some Delhi residents, who deride Kejriwal's scheme as ill conceived and impractical. Not long after the policy was announced, the government began carving out exceptions: for high-ranking officials, motorcycles and women traveling alone.

delhi roadside pollution
New Delhi, home to more than 20 million people, has nearly 9 million registered vehicles.

Some residents say that in order to cope they will resort to "jugaad," a Hindi and Punjabi word used to describe innovative solutions that often require some mischief. Already, the city is rife with talk of fake license plates. If the policy is extended beyond 15 days, some residents say they will simply buy a second car.

Yet there is some optimism about the experiment. Anumita Roychowdhury, the executive director of the Centre for Science and Environment, said pulling cars off the road will raise public awareness over air pollution, and force the government to improve mass transit systems.

"They have to come up with the template, and that system should be sustained even beyond the 15-day program," she said. "That is going to give you the ultimate solution."

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