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09 December 2023

India's smog-choked capital ends car ban trial


New Delhi on Friday wrapped up a trial of draconian driving restrictions that has taken around a million cars off the roads and seen even judges and diplomats carpool, but made little obvious difference to air quality in the world's most polluted capital.

Air quality levels remained "very unhealthy" on Friday, the final day of the two-week experiment in allowing private cars on the roads only on alternate days.

Delhi commuters were nonetheless positive about the scheme, which the government may adopt on a more permanent basis, although mostly because it freed up traffic on the city's usually clogged roads.

"The traffic situation in Delhi has really improved. Earlier, it used to take me nearly one hour to commute to work and back (home), but now the time has cut to half. It's such a relief," said Rohit Srivastava, a 32-year-old bank executive who had been carpooling with his colleagues and taking the metro every second day.

Autorickshaw driver Tej Bahadur Patel, meanwhile, said the reduction in traffic at least meant he was breathing less car fumes as he plied the roads.

"Less cars means less traffic jams, which in turn means we inhale less pollution," the 38-year-old told AFP, calling for the restrictions to be imposed on a regular basis.

In a city where road rules are routinely flouted, most drivers appeared to be obeying the restrictions and many said they viewed the scheme positively.

Violators faced a fine of 2,000 rupees ($30), a large sum for most Delhiites.

The Delhi government said the trial resulted in a "more than 50 percent drop in air pollution primarily caused by vehicular traffic" at 18 locations in the city it had been monitoring.

It was not clear, however, how the measurements were carried out and the figures did not include pollution levels from other sources.

'People are dying'

Figures from the US embassy in Delhi showed PM2.5 levels were lower than on the first day of the trial, but air quality was nevertheless still "very unhealthy" on Friday morning, with PM2.5 levels at 156 -- six times the World Health Organization (WHO) safe limit.

PM2.5 refers to microscopic particles that penetrate deep into the lungs and are particularly harmful to health.

The Delhi government introduced the scheme after a court ordered authorities to act on pollution levels that sometimes reach more than 10 times the WHO's safe limits.

It is part of a wider anti-pollution drive that will also include shutting some coal-fired power plants and vacuuming roads to reduce dust.

A 2014 WHO survey of more than 1,600 cities ranked Delhi as the most polluted, partly because of the 8.5 million vehicles on its roads, with 1,400 more added every day.

India's Supreme Court has backed the scheme, dismissing a slew of legal challenges, and even top judges said they were carpooling.

"People are dying due to pollution and you are challenging it for publicity," justices AK Sikri and R Banumathi said in a ruling Thursday.

Many foreign diplomats also said they were sharing rides to the office even though they are officially exempt from the restrictions.

Motorbike riders and women travelling alone or with children under 12 were also exempt, although many chose to abide by the scheme voluntarily.

The city's filthy air claims up to 30,000 lives each year, according to the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment.

But the auto industry argued that cars have been unfairly targeted when polluting industries were mainly to blame.

"Let me dispel the myth that cars are the biggest polluters. Of the total (pollution) only three percent comes from cars, the rest is heavy duty industry and other vehicles and so on," Vinod Dasari, president of the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers said Thursday.

A report by India's top technology institute also found that fly-ash from coal-based tandoor ovens, burning of solid waste and road dust were among the main culprits.

The city's air usually worsens in winter as cooler air traps pollutants and people light fires to stay warm.

The Delhi government will meet on Monday to discuss the success of the scheme.