How New Delhi is restricting cars on its streets to fight pollution

Click to play video: 'Air quality in New Delhi improves temporarily, but expert warns of steady decrease, ‘ill-effects’ on health'
Air quality in New Delhi improves temporarily, but expert warns of steady decrease, ‘ill-effects’ on health
WATCH: After facing layers of toxic smog and severe levels of air pollution in November —particularly following Diwali — New Delhi air quality saw an improvement on Sunday. Experts, however, warn that there are worsening days ahead for India’s air quality – Nov 19, 2023

As India’s capital city chokes under a thick blanket of smog, the city government announced on Monday that it was heavily restricting the use of personal automobiles in New Delhi to combat air pollution in the city.

The policy, known as the “odd-even” scheme, is an emergency measure that the Delhi government puts in place when air quality plummets to dangerous levels. The rule, when in place, means only vehicles with odd-numbered licence plates are allowed to drive on one day and only even-numbered ones the day after, alternating days until restrictions end.

The current round of odd-even restrictions will be put in place starting Nov. 13, the day after the Hindu festival of Diwali when many light firecrackers to celebrate.

“The odd-even scheme will come into effect in Delhi after Diwali, running from Nov. 13 to Nov. 20. A decision to extend the scheme will be made after Nov. 20,” said Gopal Rai, Delhi’s environment minister, on Monday.

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Rai also announced the suspension of in-person classes for most school students in the city, as the Air Quality Index (AQI) levels in Delhi rose to over 400, which is around eight times worse than the recommended levels.

On Friday, authorities deployed water sprinklers and anti-smog guns to control the haze and many people used masks to escape the air pollution. The city government announced a fine of 20,000 rupees ($240) for drivers found using gasoline and diesel cars, buses and trucks that create smog, typically models 10 to 15 years old.

Every fall, the smoke from agricultural fires in the north makes its way toward New Delhi. The city’s air quality plummets around this time, mixing with its already-high base levels of pollution.

In response to rising concerns in 2016, Indian authorities rolled out a Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) to try to tackle air quality.

The plan consists of four emergency stages, each of which corresponds to a threshold of air pollution, and the idea is simple — the worse the air quality gets, the more stringent the controls get.

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The GRAP scale measures levels of what is known as particulate matter (PM) 2.5. That refers to tiny particulates in the air, such as dirt, dust and smoke, that are either two and a half microns wide, or less. These microscopic solids or liquid droplets can get into the lungs and bloodstream, posing health risks.

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In the first stage, when the levels of particulate matter PM 2.5 levels are between 61 and 120, the air quality is labelled “poor.” In this first stage, the government imposes heavy fines on garbage burning. Authorities also sprinkle water on the streets with heavy vehicular traffic, to keep the particulate matter from dispersing up into the air as vehicles roll by.

The second or “very poor” stage is when PM 2.5 levels are between 121 and 250.

In this stage, the government cracks down on the usage of diesel-powered electricity generators. To keep cars off the streets, municipal parking fees are hiked significantly, and the frequency of buses and Delhi Metro trains increases. Children, the elderly and people with respiratory problems are advised to stay indoors.

In the “severe” category (251-250), hot mix plants, brick kilns and stone crushers are banned from operating. And when the levels of PM 2.5 cross 350 on the Air Quality Index (AQI) and the city enters the “severe plus” or “hazardous” level, all construction activity is stopped.

Heavy vehicles like trucks and tankers are banned from entering the city. Even schools are shut down, though there remain questions about the impacts of such plans. 

— with files from the Associated Press.

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