POLLUTION BATTLE: Vehicles ply on a smog enveloped morning during a two-week experiment to reduce the number of cars to fight pollution in New Delhi, India. Image: AP/ Tsering Topgya
Delhi, India - India's capital Delhi has started the trial phase of a new initiative which will see private cars allowed to operate only on alternate days from January 1-15, depending on whether their license plates end in an even or an odd number.
The initiative started on Friday (January 1) as part of a sweeping plan to reduce Delhi's record-high air pollution by limiting the numbers of cars on streets for 14 days.
Air quality in Delhi has been a problem for many residents in recent years. Many middle and more affluent class families buy air filters for their homes and the sight of residents wearing surgical masks is not uncommon.
The city has also seen a marked increase in the number of hospital patients with respiratory illnesses.
Delhi pollution worsening
Pollution has been on the increase in Delhi in recent years. Last year, the World Health Organization named Delhi the world's most polluted city in a study of 1600 cities.
Residents complain of the dense smog which often engulfs the city in the morning. Many factors have contributed to the pollution, including the burning of refuse, ash from crop waste in farming areas and emissions from transport.
The most recent Economic Survey of Delhi shows the city had more than 8.8-million vehicles on the road in the year 2014 to 2015.
This marked a 14% rise in the number of vehicle registrations from 2013.
Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director for India's Centre for Science and Environment said:"The way we look at it is that this is an opportunity."
"During the coming fortnight when the number of cars will be halved on the road, this will free up a lot of space for the city's public transport to become more efficient.
"That will also lead to a more efficient utilisation of the existing fleet, unlike today where bus operations have become so inefficient, just because of road congestion.
"Studies show that buses don't even get to complete the scheduled trips. So when you're freeing up space, all modes of public transport will function better - be it autos, taxis or buses. The overall system efficiency to carry more people will improve dramatically."
Cars not only polluters
Plans to lower the city's pollution levels include shutting down one of the oldest and least-efficient power plants.
Measures also include a temporary ban on the sale of large diesel vehicles and expensive toll charges for trucks deemed to be polluting the Indian capital.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court also banned trucks from entering the city if they are over 10 years old. Taxi firms have also been told their cars have to switch to compressed natural gas by the end of March.
Traffic policemen and thousands of volunteers will check cars and violators will be fined $30 and asked to return to their point of origin.
It will be months before any discernible progress is made. On the first day of the limited ban, the average particulate matter (PM2.5) levels for New Delhi were higher than 297. That is a relatively low number for the city at this time of year, but remains about 15 times higher than the WHO standard of 20.
Women drivers excempt
One caveat is that schools and colleges were shut and many offices remained closed for the New Year’s holiday.
There are a number of exemptions to the new rules, including women, politicians, judges, police officials, sick people and motorcycles. Women will be allowed to drive their cars on all days as long as they are accompanied by only women, and children below the age of 12.
The government has also hired around 3000 private buses to provide transport from residential areas and to ease the added strain on the city’s already overworked public transport system. Schools will also remain closed until the end of the trial, so school buses can be used as public transport.
Gopal Rai, Delhi Transport Minister said: "The biggest challenge is to make people realise that this fight against pollution is for them, for their health, for their own good."