Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

New Delhi Is About to Find Out How Hard It Is to Clean Air

  • Cars to be restricted based on license plates starting Jan. 1
  • Stiff penalties on polluting vehicles, burning waste

New Delhi resident Lizu Matta, 29, is unsure how she’s going to commute to work in the new year with the start of traffic controls aimed at benching half the Indian capital’s 2.8 million private vehicles on alternate days. There’s the overcrowded subway, or the risk of a fine if she gets caught driving when she shouldn’t.

For the city’s more than 16.8 million residents, Jan. 1 marks the beginning of the most draconian measures aimed at reducing the number of exhaust-belching automobiles in the world’s most polluted metropolitan area. They also have to contend with fines for open-air burning of waste, and a ban on bigger diesel-engine vehicles, while more steps are under consideration, including increasing the penalty on cars that flout emission limits.

Together, they mark the most concerted efforts by the government to address popular discontent triggered by pollution levels that were well above safe limits for the past more than a month. New Delhi also joins Beijing as capitals of the two most populous nations now struggling to control runaway pollution brought on by decades of economic growth and lax environmental laws.

Traffic passes an electronic air quality board in front of the Ministry of Earth Sciences building at night in New Delhi, India, on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. India, China and Brazil, three of the largest developing nations, joined the U.S. in a list of the biggest historical contributors to global warming, according to a study by researchers in Canada. Photographer: Kuni Takahashi/Bloomberg
Traffic passes an electronic air quality board in front of the Ministry of Earth Sciences building at night in New Delhi, India, on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. India, China and Brazil, three of the largest developing nations, joined the U.S. in a list of the biggest historical contributors to global warming, according to a study by researchers in Canada. Photographer: Kuni Takahashi/Bloomberg

“Delhi is hell on Earth,” said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a New Delhi-based political analyst. “It will be very difficult to enforce these measures but if it is even partly successful and instills some fear in people, it will make a difference and could also set an example for other cities.”

Most Polluted

The haze in New Delhi this winter is not new. The city was the world’s most polluted measured by PM2.5 -- tiny, toxic particles that lead to respiratory diseases -- with an annual average of 153 micrograms per cubic meter, according to a 2014 World Health Organization database. A reading of 25 or lower is considered safe. PM2.5 levels crossed about 23 times the safe limit in the past month or so. The reading was at 366.7 micrograms per cubic meter, classified as hazardous, as of 11 a.m., according to the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.

The anti-smog measures are affecting both residents and manufacturers. India’s Supreme Court this month banned the registrations of diesel-engine vehicles of 2 liters or more. That sent shares of Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd., the country’s biggest SUV maker, plunging the most in more than three months on the day of the order.

While Mahindra said it will abide by the court’s decision and develop vehicles that comply with stipulations, India’s biggest commercial vehicle maker Tata Motors Ltd. said in the long term, regulation needs to focus on overall emissions-control roadmap rather than on any specific fuel or technology.

For now carmakers may look at their production, inventory and marketing of specific products, and customers are likely to shift away from diesel “given the perceived uncertainties,” said Kumar Kandaswami, senior director at Deloitte in India.

Long-Term Plans

The city will need to consider longer-term steps such as introduction of car parking permits, according to Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of research at advocacy group Centre for Science and Environment. “The moment you price things properly, behavior is going to change,” she said.

There are other longer-term plans, including the shutting down of two coal-based power plants in the city. While the Delhi government owns one plant, it will need to negotiate with the federal government-controlled power producer NTPC Ltd. to close the other.

China may hold a lesson on how difficult it is to tackle air pollution that traces its roots to entrenched problems. Like India, power plants in northern China, where the most severe smog persists, run on coal and provide electricity for smoke-billowing factories driving the country’s three decades of breakneck growth. A surge in car ownership in major Chinese cities in the past decade exacerbated the pollution.

Even though Beijing’s smog gained global attention during the 2008 Summer Olympics, with athletes captured on world media donning face masks as they disembarked from their flights, the successive years of campaigns to clean up the air has failed to prevent the city from enduring two severe bouts of choking smog in just the past month alone.

Execution Key

In India, however, the test is in the execution. The Delhi government describes the odd-even license-plate restriction as an experiment that will run for 15 days to gauge its efficacy. Those who leave their cars at home will test the capacity of the metro rail network, which carries on average more than 2.4 million people daily.

Some residents like Anita Rastogi, 49, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers India, say using the metro rail will increase the time it takes to reach meetings that she needs to attend in different parts of the city.

Lack of a robust and safe public transport system, last mile connectivity, adequate monitoring systems and citizen awareness are key challenges, according to Hem Dholakia, research associate at Council on Energy, Environment & Water.

Even so, the lessons from New Delhi may spread to other Indian cities, sparking a national drive to tackle air pollution, according to CDP India, part of an international organization that tracks environmental sustainability of companies.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said Thursday the odd-even plan, to be effective from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., will exclude motorcycles and scooters and essential services as well as women driving alone or with children. A fine of 2,000 rupees ($30) will be levied on violations.

The government will consider including two-wheelers after the experiment establishes the capability of the public transportation, and look to implement the plan for short periods when pollution spikes, said Kejriwal. The city had 5.6 million registered scooters and motorcycles registered as of March.

“No one wants to live coughing and wear masks,” said Damandeep Singh, director of CDP India. “Clean air starts with people and they have to get involved.”

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