Plan to clean New Delhi's polluted air may fizzle before it starts

NEW DELHI -- The Indian capital, gasping and choking under record-high air pollution, announced a grand plan to clean its air.

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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 Jan. 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.

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

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

For the ordinary person, the effects of pollution in New Delhi are palpable: grey, overladen skies, difficulty in breathing and the smell of vehicle exhaust that pervades the air.

Anumita Raichaudury, an environmentalist, 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 reeling from the worst pollution levels this season.

On Thursday, the Indian environment monitoring index showed record levels of PM2.5, the tiny, inhalable particles that are of particular concern because with diameters no greater than 2.5 micrometers, they're small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs causing the maximum damage.

The average PM2.5 levels for New Delhi Thursday were over 293, almost 5 times higher than the Indian norm of 60 and some 15 times over the WHO standard of 20.

Plans to clean up the city's near intolerable pollution levels had included shutting down one of the oldest and least efficient power plant, 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, the World Health Organization 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.

Surjit Bhalla, an economist, 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.

Associated Press Writer Muneeza Naqvi contributed to this report from New Delhi



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