Toxic smog triggers restrictions on cars in India's capital

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By Associated Press  with NBC News World News
Image: A rickshaw drives along a road under heavy smog conditions in New De
A rickshaw drives along a road under heavy smog conditions in New Delhi on Sunday.   -  Copyright  Sajjad Hussain

NEW DELHI — India's capital New Delhi has restricted many private vehicles from the roads Monday to try to lessen pollution as people gasped and their eyes burned in toxic smog that exacerbated a public health crisis.

The so-called "odd-even" scheme will restrict cars with odd-number license plates to driving on odd dates of the week while even-numbered plates will be allowed to drive on even-numbered dates.

It started days after authorities in the Indian capital began emergency control measures and ordered the closure of schools as pollution levels reached a three-year high.

Tourists visit the India Gate under heavy smog in New Delhi on Sunday.
Tourists visit the India Gate under heavy smog in New Delhi on Sunday. Sajjad Hussain

The state-run Central Pollution Control Board's air quality index for New Delhi was "severe" at 436, about nine times the recommended maximum.

Traffic police officers, wearing protective masks, signaled cars to stop for not following the temporary rule.

New Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal appealed for residents to follow the rule and for private taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers to support it.

Authorities said almost 1.2 million registered vehicles in Delhi will be off-road every day during the two-week restrictions.

People had a mixed response, with many seen outdoors not wearing protective masks.

"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," said Ajay Jasra, a Delhi resident.

Air pollution in New Delhi and northern Indian states peaks in the winter as farmers in neighboring agricultural regions set fire to clear land after the harvest and prepare for the next crop season. The pollution in the Indian capital also peaks after Diwali celebrations, the Hindu festival of light, when people set off fireworks.

People distraught over the pollution say they wanted to leave the city of more than 20 million people due to its poor air quality.

"I feel like moving out as well because I'm young and I'm still on a stage of building up my life and my career," Delhi resident Divyam Mathur said.

The vehicle restrictions have been the Aam Aadmi Party-led city government's pet project to fight air pollution. It was implemented twice in 2016, but remained controversial as critics have debated its success.

Vehicle and industrial emissions, pollutants from firecrackers, and construction dust sharply increase each winter, exacerbating what is already a public health crisis.

Last year, the New Delhi government ordered firefighters to sprinkle water from high-rise buildings to settle dust, stopped garbage fires and ordered builders to cover construction sites to stop dust enveloping the area as hazardous air quality affected millions of people.

World Health Organization data released last year gave India the dubious distinction of having the world's 10 most polluted cities.