Plan to clean New Delhi's air may fizzle as auto rules eased

NEW DELHI: The Indian capital, gasping and choking under record-high air pollution, announced a grand plan to clean its air. But that plan seems to be fizzling before it starts.

Arvind Kejriwal, the top elected official of the Indian capital, had said last month that private cars will be allowed on New Delhi's roads only on alternate days from January 1-15, depending on whether their license plates end in an even or an odd number.

On Thursday, he announced a list of people exempted from that rule: top politicians, judges, police and prison officials, women and sick people. He also left out two-wheel vehicles like motorbikes and scooters.

He even added a bigger caveat — if even the watered-down plan inconvenienced citizens the plan would be scrapped.

The effects of pollution in New Delhi are palpable: gray, overladen skies, difficulty in breathing and the smell of vehicle exhaust that pervades the air.

Environmentalist Anumita Raichaudury warned that with so many exemptions the effectiveness of the government efforts would be compromised. "Two wheelers should be brought within its mandate as they make key contribution to pollution."

"We support the government effort, but it should be executed well," she said.

This week the Indian capital is suffering from the worst pollution this season.

On Thursday, the Indian environment monitoring index showed record levels of PM2.5, those with diameters no greater than 2.5 micrometers, which can be more damaging because they are small enough to be breathed deeply into the lungs.

The average PM2.5 levels for the capital Thursday were over 293, almost 5 times higher than the Indian norm of 60 and some 15 times over the World Health Organisation standard of 20.

Plans to clean up the city's pollution had included shutting down one of the oldest and least efficient power plants, a temporary ban on the sale of large diesel vehicles and a stiff toll for pollution-spewing trucks entering the Indian capital.

The Supreme Court earlier this month also banned trucks from entering the city if they're over 10 years old or are just transiting through. In addition, all taxis in the area, including private ride-hailing services such as Uber, have to switch to compressed natural gas by March 31.

But it was the plan to reduce the cars on the sprawling capital's roads that was the most dramatic.

Last year, WHO named New Delhi the world's most polluted city, with 12 other Indian cities ranking among the worst 20. Air pollution contributes to more than 600,000 deaths each year in India.

The watering down of the plan has disappointed many who cheered when Kejriwal first announced his grand scheme.

But for others even the watered-down scheme is better than nothing at all.

Economist Surjit Bhalla said the government has acted in response to pressure mounting from citizens who have become increasingly aware of the dangers. "But I am doubtful about its success."