New Delhi is choking on its own air.
On January 1, India's capital made an attempt to address its status as the world's most polluted big city, according to the World Health Organization, by implementing a temporary "odd-even scheme" for automobile use. Private vehicles could only be driven on days that matched their plate number or risk a $30 fine. There were loads of exemptions, including the two-wheelers that dominate the roads, hybrids, and cars driven by VIPs or women (with no men in the vehicle). There were jokes about "men riding in the dickey" — the trunk — of cars and more serious conversations about immediately buying a second car to get around the restrictions. But after the 15-day plan came to end, overall sentiment was high as researchers rushed to declare it a success or failure.
"Odd-even was brilliant" said Namit Arora, a member of the Delhi Dialogue Commission's Pollution Task Force, who gathered with hundreds of Delhiites donning masks under the banner #HelpDelhiBreathe. The protest emerged from the Air Quality in Delhi group on Facebook, which counts seven thousand people as members. "It gave people a chance to display civic sense and take ownership of the problem," he said.
Hundreds of New Delhi residents, some wearing masks to shield themselves from the city's notoriously dirty air, turned out for a protest under the banner #HelpDelhiBreathe.
A protestor's sign reads: If not now, then when? When everything dissolves into smoke?
While some assessments of the odd-even scheme showed mixed results, Transport Minister Gopal Rai said government pollution data showed a decline in overall PM 2.5 levels, a harmful form of airborne particulate matter linked to respiratory illnesses and premature death. "Data over the last 15 days shows that in December the levels of PM 2.5, caused by vehicle pollution, was above 600. The most dangerous levels seen during the odd-even scheme at the permanent pollution monitoring centers were at an average of 400."
This is still staggeringly high. The WHO says anything greater than 10 micrograms per cubic meter is unsafe. But many variables affect levels, including fluctuating temperature and precipitation, so just registering whether levels rose or fall is an inadequate measure.
To get a more accurate assessment, researchers from the University of Chicago and Harvard University compared PM 2.5 figures to neighboring areas without the ban in place, as well as the hours of day and night when there were no driving restrictions, and declared the effort a success. They found the ban reduced hourly particulate air pollution concentrations by 18 percent during the restrictive hours.
"We don't have to wait for precise numbers," Arora said.
All research indicates that the top three contributors to poor air quality are vehicular air pollution, especially diesel; combustion from household burning of wood, trash burning, field burning in rural areas, and coal-fired power plants; and dust from roads and construction.
"There is no one right strategy," Arora said. "We can act. And we need to act, on multiple fronts simultaneously."
Strategies set forth by Delhi's Pollution Task Force include immediately raising vehicle emission and fuel standards, improving public transportation, providing public air advisories, offering alternatives to waste burning, and implementing regional strategies to address pollution sources throughout northern India.
New Delhi has the worst air of any big city in the world, according to the World Health Organization.
Challenges remain, though, said Anumita Roychowdhury, head of the Center for Science and Environment's Clean Air campaign. In the last fifteen years, the number of cars in New Delhi has doubled to nine million.
"You're trying to catch up with a problem where the problem itself is leaping forward," she said. "The soft options are over in Delhi. What we've been able to achieve with an emergency action [through odd-even], we need to sustain with more systemic action, and that's the next step."
"First, first, first — we need awareness," said 29-year-old activist Brindha Srinivasan, who travels the city with a hand-held air monitor offering to show people the levels of particulate matter they're inhaling. She excelled at sports as a child in Delhi until she was hospitalized at the age of ten with major lung problems and had to quit playing. Now, she advocates for focusing more on the urban poor, pointing out the limitations of odd-even vehicle restrictions when "only rich people have cars."
People at the protest were uniformly in support of extending the odd-even plan, praising not just the improvement in air quality, but the fact that travel time was halved on the decongested roads.
Off the streets, other efforts are underway. The Supreme Court is playing an important role given the political standoff between Delhi's Aam Admi government and the Bharatiya Janata Party that is ruling at the national level. "Each government is at the other's neck," the court has said, with each claiming the other bears the responsibility for cleaning up Delhi's air. In the fall, the court called Delhi a "gas chamber" and has repeatedly increased pollution taxes on diesel trucks.
But on January 21, the Supreme Court turned down a petition on behalf of three infants calling for speeding up the transition to cleaner Euro-VI fuels, which currently have a target implementation date of 2020, citing concerns about adverse economic impact.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal stated that the odd-even plan will resume in the future in improved form. In the meantime, he called for citizens to continue alternate-day use of their vehicles. "Please continue with it because this is a question of our lives, our health, our children and our city," he said.
But immediately after the ban lifted, Delhi's diminished traffic returned to it's usual whirling, chaotic snarl.
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Photos by Meera Subramanian